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Posts Tagged ‘Sam Rockwell’

Never let it be said that you can’t do a family-friendly, acclaimed, popular movie about Nazism: the bloomin’ Sound of Music was on again the other night, sending the usual dubious message that the best way of dealing with a fascist takeover of your government is to start singing at it. But the danger of doing funny stuff about the Nazis is that the joke will end up being on you. To paraphrase the late Clive James, if Nazism was a joke, then it was a cruel joke played by history on the world, and one that we should be careful of laughing at too freely.

Quite reasonably, this sentiment seems to be fairly widespread in civilised society, which may be why the publicity material for Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit has been stressing the fact that this isn’t just a black comedy about life in Nazi Germany, but a film with important things to say about understanding, tolerance, etc, etc. That doesn’t change the fact that the trailer seems designed to provoke that old Kipling line about the sheer audacity of the thing. (I should mention that this is a rare example of one of those films enjoying a staggered international release: which is to say it has only just come out in the UK, a couple of months after many other countries.)

Roman Griffin Davis plays Johannes Betzler, a ten-year-old boy living somewhere in Germany towards the end of the Second World War. His father and sister are both gone, due to the war, and he is living alone with his mother – or so he thinks, anyway. (Johannes’ mother is played by Scarlett Johansson: it feels like there should be some sort of joke in there, but I just can’t find it.) Like many young lads, he has an imaginary friend, but what is slightly unusual in this case is that his pal is Adolf Hitler (Waititi), or at least his own slightly warped idea of what Hitler is like. As the film starts, Jojo (for so is he known) leads a fairly happy, carefree life, heedless of the advancing Allies: he and his friends go off on Hitler Youth activity weekends, have fun burning books, learn to recognise Jews, and so on.

However, things get a bit more complicated when Jojo discovers an interloper in the family home: a teenage girl who is living in the wainscotting. Her name is Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), and she is a Jewish refugee given refuge by Jojo’s mother. What is a dedicated young Nazi supposed to do in a situation like this one? Things are not made any easier when it turns out that Elsa is not the vile, horned cannibal he has been led to expect, but actually seems to be quite a pleasant young woman…

Now, of course, the idea of using Nazism as the source of jokes in a bad-taste comedy is hardly a new one: Mel Brooks won an Oscar for The Producers over fifty years ago, and there’s a lot of the same provocative spirit here too – ‘It’s time to burn some books!’ cries Rebel Wilson as one of the Hitler Youth instructors (her charges cheer with delight), while Sam Rockwell initially appears to be turning in one of his more uninhibited performances as the wounded army veteran put in charge of the group. But, on the other hand, there is that storyline about Elsa hiding in Jojo’s house and their developing friendship. So which is this to be? A wild comedy of excess, made acceptable by a more thoughtful, human-interest subplot? Or an attempt at a film with genuine heart and emotion, perked up now and then by some jokes about Swastikas and comedy Gestapo agents?

I think, in the end, that Jojo Rabbit is a bit less bold and outrageous than its publicity suggests it to be – or perhaps I should say that it is not consistently provocative. There are lengthy semi-serious segments, mostly concerning Jojo’s relationships with his mother and with Elsa, which do function on a more naturalistic level and are obviously attempting to engage with the audience’s emotions – not without success, I should add. Only occasionally do Rockwell, Wilson, and the others turn up for another sketch-like interlude.

In the end I suppose we should be grateful for this, but on the other hand there is the awkward problem that the comic scenes are much more successful than the more serious ones – by which I mean they mostly get the laughs they’re aiming for, mainly due to a decent script and full-blooded performances from a cast who know what they’re doing. The more measured scenes are not actually bad, with Johansson in particular clearly working hard, but the more serious the film tries to be, the more awkward it feels – as if it’s playing a role out of obligation, rather than any real conviction. At one point there’s a sequence where stirring music plays as Jojo watches the civilian population of his home town squandering their lives in a futile attempt to hold off the advancing Allies – but it’s hard to think of any message this is supposed to be putting across that isn’t trite or facile.

Perhaps it would work better if there was more of a sense of the film being grounded in an actual historical setting, but the film is vague at best about the actual period in which it takes place. You could argue that all films set in recent history look identical, and this is an attempt to avoid that cliche (the cinematography and art directon are much brighter and less textured than you might expect) – but something about that kind of look does give a sense of verisimilitude, which is lacking here. I’m not saying the costumes or sets are wrong, but it just doesn’t feel like the 1940s, and odd details like Jojo’s home town being invaded by both Americans and Russians on the same day just add to the sense of this essentially being a cartoon even when it’s attempting to be serious.

This is by no means a terrible film with which to start the year – there are some good performances, it is frequently very funny, and its heart is certainly in the right place. But it seems to me that the comedic elements of the film just work to make it feel superficial, detracting from the more serious story which is really at its heart. Not the worst film a bunch of comedians have made about the Nazis – that honour still probably goes to The Day the Clown Cried, or at least it would if anyone was allowed to watch it – but it is rather uneven, even in its better moments.

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One of the nice things about our semi-regular trips to the cinema is the opportunity for some proper, high-quality discussion and debate afterwards. Last week, for example, Olinka and I had an interesting talk about the concept of normality and what it really means – should it carry a positive or negative connotation? And then today we emerged from the theatre, this time accompanied by our Contemporary Conflict Consultant (she did an MA in modern geo-politics, or something – we just call her Con-Con).

‘So,’ I said, ‘If you had to choose between being ruled by an idiot or a monster, which would it be?’

‘Neither.’

‘You have to choose!’

‘But they’re both bad!’ said Olinka.

‘Yes, but which is worse?’

‘They’re both worse than each other,’ said Con-Con, who may have an MA but probably wouldn’t last long in a philosophy seminar.

In the end they sort of refused to answer the question, which I thought was telling. The movie to provoke this unusually intense wrangling was Adam McKay’s Vice. Ten or fifteen years ago McKay was well-established as a director of smart, silly comedy films, but since then he has reinvented himself as one of the most ferociously political directors working in the Hollywood mainstream – almost like a non-documentarian analogue to Michael Moore – and has done so to some acclaim. Vice continues this, and is probably his most partisan piece of work to date.

Vice tells the story of the career of Dick Cheney, whom you may or may not recall was the Vice-President of the United States under George W Bush. You may very well not recall; the film suggests this may be part of Cheney’s dark genius. Cheney is played by Christian Bale at his most chameleonic – for most of the film he virtually disappears under layers of prosthetic make-up. We first meet the future Veep in the early sixties as a hard-drinking scumbag, kicked out of college for his bad behaviour. His intimidating wife Lynne (Amy Adams) decrees that Cheney shape up or she will leave him.

From this point on the film rattles through the early part of his political career – an internship in Washington, where he forges a long-lasting alliance with his mentor-cum-ally Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), then a stint as White House chief-of-staff, election as a Congressman, then Secretary of Defence under the first President Bush. A presidential run is contemplated, but Cheney decides against it. However, could a second act in his career be lurking on the horizon…?

Well, of course it is, and – the film posits – Cheney eventually becomes the real power behind the throne as Vice-President to George W Bush (Sam Rockwell), quietly gaining control of key areas such as energy, defence, and foreign policy. Following the September 11th attacks, Cheney and his cohorts see the opportunity to launch the invasion of Iraq they have already been preparing for. Various things follow which I hope you are already familiar with: Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, the destabilisation of the Middle East, the rise of ISIS, and much more. Did I mention that this is at least partly intended as a comedy film?

Doing a bio-pic of someone who is still alive is not entirely unheard of, especially when the person is in the later stages of their life and most likely not going to make any more notable contributions to posterity. What makes Vice somewhat noteworthy is that most biographical films tend to be upbeat, or at least fairly non-judgmental, certainly when their subject is still alive. This film is different. Dick Cheney is presented as, not to put too fine a point on it, a monster, an utterly ruthless sociopath fixated on the acquisition and use of power for its own sake. (Bale notoriously thanked ‘Satan’ for inspiration when he won an award for this role recently.) One key moment in his political development comes when a perplexed Cheney asks Rumsfeld what it is they actually believe in as politicians. Rumsfeld walks off practically screaming with laughter. Cheney, the film suggests, achieves this and facilitates many atrocities through the deployment of tortuous circular logic (America has declared it does use torture; therefore the use of stress positions and waterboarding cannot, by definition, be considered torture) and an Orwellian misuse of language (‘enemy combatant’ rather than ‘prisoner of war’; ‘climate change’, not ‘global warming’). He also makes full use of people’s tendency to ignore big, complex, abstract problems and fixate on whatever’s in front of them, like a reality TV show.

As with The Big Short, McKay’s last film, there is some quite challenging material here, the sort of thing that might make audiences switch off, and so McKay works intensely to keep the film surprising and blackly entertaining. Bale’s performance as Cheney is a masterclass in understated, underplayed menace, but Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell are both essentially off the leash as Rumsfeld and Bush – Rumsfeld emerges as a kind of demented rodent, while the film sticks with the notion that Bush was a clueless figurehead for an administration basically run by Cheney: Rockwell plays him as a hapless, baffled lightweight. Some big performances here, and it does make me wonder about (and, to be honest, eagerly anticipate) the inevitable movie concerning the Trump administration we’re bound to get, probably sooner rather than later. How can any movie do that particular circus justice? One can only hope The Jim Henson Company have kept their diaries free.

Elsewhere the film cheerfully toys with the standard forms of conventional cinema in a way which seemed to me to be very clearly indebted to Monty Python in places – there’s a fake ending at one point, complete with its own credits. You do occasionally get a sense of the film stretching a bit too far for its effects, though – Jesse Plemons’ narrator admits that it’s impossible to know what was going through the Cheneys’ minds as they contemplated Dick becoming the VP, so the film opts to fill the gap by inserting a cod-Shakespearean sketch with the couple considering their options a la Macbeth and his wife.

‘This probably won’t play well with the Republican base’, you may be thinking, and the film indeed seems to anticipate this, including another sketch-like moment where one character complains he’s appearing in a film with a liberal bias and then gets into a fight with someone with an old-fashioned attachment to facts (meanwhile two onlookers ignore the developing brawl as they discuss the latest cool movie trailer to drop). But this seems more like a joke than a serious attempt at redress. One of the film’s most brilliant strokes is to suggest that, despite everything else he’s responsible for, Dick Cheney did have at least one mitigating quality, one moral principle – only to reveal that, in the end, he knowingly abandoned even this. Even so, the film does allow Cheney the last word – Bale-as-Cheney addresses the camera and justifies his actions in a manner that is not only difficult to easily dismiss, but also serves as a reminder that we are all to some extent complicit in the crimes committed in our names.

The disputed election in 2000 and the invasion of Iraq a few years later already feel like something out of the history books, but Vice is also careful to establish the part that Cheney and his generation played in creating the conditions which enabled the current slow-motion disaster in American politics. Trump and Pence appear in archive footage; they actually find footage of Ronald Reagan saying ‘Make America great again’; Cheney’s role in changing the law to allow partisan news services such as Fox News to come into existence is touched upon. There is much that is still timely in this film, even if it feels more like a howl of disbelieving anger than any kind of suggestion as to how to make things better.

This is a ferocious film, very funny, and full of ideas and energy with some terrifically entertaining performances. It’s also quite frightening and more than a bit dispiriting, which makes it an odd package, to say the least. I’m not sure it’s likely to change many minds, but I think it will be an educational experience for many people, and a roller-coaster trip through recent political history. One of the outstanding movies of the year so far.

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I have to confess that I do occasionally have a problem remembering which of the McDonagh brothers (John Michael and Martin) is which. Which one of them wrote and directed In Bruges? Which one did Calgary? Or Seven Psychopaths? Or The Guard? Luckily this is a less serious issue than it could be, as no matter which McDonough is responsible, the films themselves are almost always witty, thoughtful, and provocative in a good way. And so it proves with Martin McDonagh’s new film Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, yet another film which finds itself almost uncannily positioned to comment on and possibly take advantage of the unusual moment in which the United States finds itself.

The film opens just outside the small town of the title, and finds Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced woman with a teenage son, being struck by a moment of inspiration when she sees three long-disused billboards near her home. Some months earlier, her teenage daughter was raped and murdered, and there has been no word from the police department about this for a very long time. Incensed by the lack of progress, or indeed communication, Mildred rents the boards and puts up a set of messages highlighting the apparent inertia of the cops, in particular the police chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

Willoughby, a basically decent man, is frustrated and irritated by this, but he has deeper personal problems to deal with and is inclined to be understanding. However, one of his men, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is somewhat less inclined to show empathy. Dixon is a little bit dim and more than a little bit bigoted, and happy to use any means necessary to get Mildred off the police’s case. Neither side seems willing to consider moderating their position, and with Willoughby stuck in the middle, it seems that only a further tragedy stands any chance of bringing resolution to the situation…

This is another case of a film proving slightly tricky to review, mainly because there is a significant plot element that doesn’t feature in the trailer, presumably because McDonagh wants it held back as a surprise for the viewer (despite the fact it’s established very early on in the story). The trailer, more to the point, seems to be pitching Three Billboards as a kind of offbeat, somewhat Coenish black comedy. And I’m really not sure that this does the movie justice at all.

There are certainly moments of comedy here, and the film is shot through with darkness of the most uncomfortable kind, but this does not feel like a film really setting out to amuse the audience. It would be equally easy to describe it as simply being the story of a woman setting out to confront the forces of male establishment prejudice, but I don’t think that this is what the film is truly about, either.

Certainly, it touches on elements of racism and bigotry, not to mention police brutality, but there’s almost a sense in which the film can’t pass a potential issue without trying to be provocative about it, from homophobia to child abuse in the Catholic Church. But touching on a subject doesn’t mean the film’s actually about that thing, and if anything, Three Billboards seems to me to be a deeply serious film about a number of things, one of them being anger and guilt. (McDonagh himself has said the film is about rage.) It seems to me that the film is suggesting that Mildred is provoking and sustaining fury as a coping method to help her deal with her own issues of grief and regret: McDormand’s performance, a masterclass of intensity and quiet stillness, certainly seems to suggest as much, as do the numerous striking moments in which the film pauses to become almost lyrically meditative.

If the film does have a message for the United States today, it is a more complex and (perhaps) less easily digestible one than the simple platitude that prejudice is bad. Mildred is an essentially good person, the film makes clear, but a good person whom events transform into an implacable righteous avenger. The problem is that a righteous avenger can be just as destructive a force as a thuggish, reactionary brute like Rockwell’s character, if neither of them is prepared to compromise. And so it transpires – neither side refuses to show any consideration for the other. Mistakes are made. Misunderstandings occur. People caught in the crossfire are the ones who suffer.

It seems to me that here McDonagh is creating a parable about the modern United States, which (as far as many observers can tell) is currently as divided and factionalised as it has been in living memory. The tendency towards unthinking demonisation of the opposition, and a lack of basic kindness and decency – these are other things that (again, it seems to me) Three Billboards is about, but they could surely equally be said about the culture wars taking place in America currently. If the film ultimately suggests that there is hope for some kind of rapprochement and a new kind of unity, then it is couched in the most unsettling terms – then again, there are few films which conclude on such a finely judged note of ambiguity and ambivalence as this one.

McDormand and Rockwell are both really excellent (in an example of just the kind of inflexible ideological puritanism that the film appears to be warning against, it has been suggested that Rockwell should not receive any awards for his performance in this film, as it is apparently morally wrong to reward someone for playing a racist), but so is Woody Harrelson, who has perhaps suffered for having a somewhat smaller role than either of the others. Then again, this is a film stuffed with classy, well-judged performances. The only very mild issue is with Abbie Cornish’s appearance as Harrelson’s wife – I think it’s probably a good performance, but the fact that it’s impossible to work out what kind of accent Cornish is attempting is inevitably a bit distracting.

There are plenty of laughs in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, but I think this is a very serious film that has the nerve to try and tackle some big subjects, both emotional and topical. As a result it includes a lot of a material which I suspect many viewers will find off-putting. This really is a drama, and one that goes to some extremely dark and potentially upsetting places. But it’s also a highly intelligent and very humane film, even if the notes of optimism it eventually strikes are inevitably somewhat muted. Most likely one of the films of the year.

 

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The last ten years have seen the adoption by all the big studios of something called day-and-date releasing: this is the strategy whereby a new film gets released globally on pretty much the same day. It’s supposed to help combat movie piracy, but one of the fringe benefits is that the rest of the world gets to enjoy new blockbusters on the same day they come out in America, thus putting an end to the phenomenon of people timing their holidays in order to catch a particular film as early as possible.

Day-and-date is still very much the norm for most big movies (although apparently Skyfall came out in the USA later than virtually anywhere else so as not to clash with the election), but for smaller offerings a degree of slippage in the schedule is not unknown. So it is with Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths.

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Back in October I got a message from an American friend making sure I was planning to see (and then, with grim inevitability, write about) this particular film. I wasn’t, at the time; indeed I’d never heard of it. I’d heard of McDonagh, not so much for his well-received films like In Bruges but because he was the brother of the director of The Guard, my favourite film of last year. But I’m a sucker for requests and the cast list for this film looked interesting, at least. Paying only the most cursory attention to the plot synopsis, off I went, anticipating a comedy-crime-thriller. Hmmmm.

In the film, scripted by Irish writer Martin McDonagh, we meet an Irish writer called Marty (Colin Farrell), currently seemingly adrift in Los Angeles. He is struggling with his latest project, a script entitled Seven Psychopaths, mainly because he doesn’t have enough psychopaths and no ideas for what they’re going to do anyway. Real life around Marty is about to get somewhat psychopathic, anyway: a masked killer nicknamed the Jack of Diamonds is slaughtering his way through the LA mob, Marty’s strange best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is involved not only with the lovely girlfriend (Olga Kurylenko, very briefly appearing) of a nutso gang boss (Woody Harrelson), but also in a lucrative dog-napping business with the strangely devout, or should that be devoutly strange Hans (Christopher Walken, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay out there even by his standards).

Billy also wants to help Marty write the movie, and to help with the research has placed an advert inviting every psycho in California to get in touch with them and provide material for the script. Up turns Tom Waits, carrying both a live rabbit and a metaphorical torch. Meanwhile Marty is having second thoughts about the whole psychopath angle – is there no way he can do an action movie called Seven Pacifists instead?

There’s a weary old saw about how some movies review themselves – this usually meaning that the film in question is self-evidently either good or bad: you can just write about what’s up on screen without having to think too much about expressing the finer points of its quality. Seven Psychopaths also has a go at reviewing itself, but in a slightly different way.

This is because the script of the movie that Marty and Billy are writing bears an uncanny resemblence to the script of the movie they are actually appearing in – characters from the film start appearing, mixed up in the slightly awkward situation he, Billy and Hans find themselves in when Billy kidnaps the gang boss’s prized Shih Tzu. Most obviously, at one point Marty decides that their script will take a bizarre and uncharacteristic left turn – at which point his real life starts to follow exactly the same route.

It sounds cringingly knowing and clever-clever, but this element appears so subtly and unexpectedly in what starts off as a gonzo LA comedy-drama that I was quite taken in by it. It makes it hard to shake the suspicion that when someone starts criticising Marty’s writing in the film, this is really Martin McDonagh owning up to a few flaws in his own script – most obviously, Marty is criticised for writing very few, and very small parts for women, most of whom are decorative and also meet untimely ends. Does this excuse the way Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko and Linda Bright Clay are used (and sometimes abused) in this movie? Does saying ‘I know I’ve been bad’ excuse you for being bad? I’m not sure.

Anyway, this layer of cleverness, added to the talent at work throughout the movie, results in something which is a huge amount of slightly guilty fun: very violent, profane, and more than a bit absurd. This is not to say that there are not serious and even quite moving moments along the way – there’s a very tense scene in which Walken’s sick wife is cornered by Harrelson, who’s out to get him but doesn’t realise who she is. This could have come out of a serious thriller. As the film goes on, though, it drops these occasional pretences and becomes much more about Sam Rockwell, who’s off the leash as a kind of demented idiot-savant who – not inappropriately – seems to have lost track of the boundary between reality and fiction. Rockwell is very funny and gives a very big performance, but then so is Harrelson, so is Walken. Colin Farrell is stuck in the middle playing the straight man and actually does a really good job of it.

I haven’t seen a story crack itself open and start to play with its own guts in quite this way since Adaptation., and it may indeed be that Seven Psychopaths is not quite so accomplished, never quite escaping its slightly wearisome Tarantino-esque trappings. Certainly there are distinct signs of the film wanting to have its cake and eat it, particularly as the climax unfolds (‘unfolds’ is much too tidy and straightforward a word for it, of course).

Seven Psychopaths is certainly satisfyingly clever and different, and – being totally wrong-footed by it to begin with – I enjoyed it immensely, for a while even wondering if the McDonagh family might be about to (figuratively) take home the (non-existent) film of the year prize for the second year in a row? I think not; while The Guard plays similar games with genre tropes to a lesser degree, it’s built around a genuine piece of characterisation with a proper supporting story. Seven Psychopaths just thrashes around demolishing itself and other Hollywood thrillers to hilarious effect – not that this is in any way not a worthwhile undertaking, nor one which is executed without skill, panache, and energy. Well worth watching.

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Various cinematic shades hang over Duncan Jones’ Moon, almost exclusively of the classic-70s-SF variety – even before the opening credits had finished I was already thinking in terms of Silent Running, Alien, 2001, and so on. This sort of homage goes on all the time, of course, but the question is whether this is just a cheap visual gimmick – an ingratiating wink at the cognoscenti – or born of a deeper affection for and understanding of what these films are actually about.

Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, the sole inhabitant of an industrial outpost on the dark side of the titular celestial body. Sam’s job is to oversee a number of semi-autonomous robotic mining vehicles which harvest energy-rich helium-3 before it is processed and fired off back to Earth. Almost totally isolated and unable to communicate directly with Earth, his only companion is Gerty, the embodiment of the base AI (voiced, inimitably, by Kevin Spacey). Sam’s been here for three years – a long haul – and he is looking forward to the end of his contract and returning to his wife and child. However, as his time grows short, he becomes aware of strange phenomena – he seems to be having hallucinations, occasionally glimpsing others in the base or seeing recordings of himself he has no recollection of making. Things come to a head when he becomes dangerously distracted while out on the lunar surface and crashes his tractor into one of the helium miners.

Sam recovers consciousness in the base infirmary with no recollection of what happened. But almost at once he becomes suspicious – Gerty seems to be having conversations with Earth behind his back and the base is unaccountably sealed. He manages to make his way outside, but on returning to the crash site he makes a shocking discovery – inside the wrecked tractor is an injured man, and it appears to be him…

The most obvious thing about Moon is the level of technical achievement involved in what is, after all, an extremely low-budget film. This is not remotely apparent on screen: the production is immaculately designed and realised, with the only slightly peculiar element being extensive use of models rather than CGI. Even this feels like a refreshing break from the norm, and if I say parts of the film rather resemble parts of the Gerry Anderson canon, I mean this in a good way.

The centre of the film is the interaction between the two Sam and this is flawlessly executed – there’s even a brief sequence where they play each other at ping-pong during which my jaw literally dropped open. Here the movie transcends the technical limitations of the films it’s inspired by while keeping something of their soul. However, that this element works as well as it does is due just as much to Sam Rockwell’s performance. The two Sams are very different characters and constantly believeable as such – but at the same time, Rockwell never overdoes it and makes them into wholly different people.

Recently I discussed the difficulty of defining the nature of SF, and one of the better suggestions I’ve heard is that it revolves around conceptual breakthrough of some kind – characters slowly coming to a better, truer understanding of the nature of the world and their place in it. This theme is certainly at the heart of Moon and certainly influences the structure of the film – this isn’t an action movie or really an adventure of any kind, but more an examination of character. As such it’s both engaging and rather moving.

If the film has a weakness, it’s that once all the layers of mystification and strangeness have been resolved, the story is rather stuck for things to do in terms of a climax. Lots of things happen, for sure, and the end of the film is satisfying – but it somehow doesn’t have the richness or thoughtfulness of the earlier sections.

Moon, as I believe is quite well-known, eventually led to Duncan Jones being given the director’s chair on Source Code. In retrospect, it’s easy to see what the two films have in common, as they’re both tightly limited in terms of location and are concerned with individuals trapped in a repetitive cycle to the point where they begin to question their own identity. They’re both very good, but for me Moon is easily the superior of the two – not just a homage to a collection of classic movies, but a classic in its own right.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 27th 2003:

The abiding image that’s remained with me from George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is of a Japanese Elvis impersonator singing ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ on the soundtrack, whilst Julia Roberts and Sam Rockwell wrestle a recently-assassinated corpse into a well. The really worrying thing is that in the context of the movie this seems entirely reasonable and actually a little bit moving.

One of the good things about being the undisputed global hegemon is that you can release bio-pics of obscure pop-culture figures abroad (i.e., here) and still expect them to make money. Man in the Moon, about the almost-unknown-in-the-UK Andy Kaufman, was one, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is another. (Although knowing the British Film Council it’s only a matter of time before the life story of, say, Graeme Garden, hits the multiplexes from Tallahassee to Bakersfield to near-unanimous indifference.) The subject on this occasion is Chuck Barris, another total unknown over here (though his progeny have wreaked their insidious influence upon our cultural landscape for decades).

Based on Barris’ unauthorised autobiography, the movie boldly depicts the young Barris (played by Sam Rockwell) as a sex-crazed loser with an ambition to get into television any way he can. Along the way he hooks up with the sweet and uninhibited Penny (Drew Barrymore) who inadvertently gives him the idea for the TV game show that launched his career, The Dating Game (which is still running in the UK under the title Blind Date). But also around this time, Barris is approached by CIA agent Jim Byrd (a deadpan, moustachioed Clooney, supporting my thesis that actors directing for the first time always cast themselves) who recruits him as an assassin for the government. But as Barris’ TV shows (culminating in the no-talent contest, The Gong Show) go from strength to strength, the dangers involved in his double life become greater and greater, as does the strain of keeping them separate…

Well, Barris claims this is all true, but no-one really seems to believe him. Many of Barris’ real-life friends and colleagues appear and express their doubts on the subject, and the film keeps its tongue firmly in cheek. (Barris himself, still alive and still sticking to his story, appears in a mute cameo at the end of the film.) But the truth or not of the story doesn’t really matter as the film it’s inspired is hugely entertaining.

This is, first and foremost, an absurd, deadpan black comedy. The central conceit – producer of trash TV by day, government killer by night – is a ridiculously winning one and the script (by current golden boy Charlie Kaufman) wisely pitches the whole film at a stylised, fantastical level, avoiding the temptation to make Barris’ ‘real’ life too naturalistic or his spy exploits too far-fetched. But the characters of Barris and Penny are carefully drawn and fully rounded, and apart from the opening section, which seems a little insubstantial and over-pacy, this is an extremely classy screenplay.

It’s directed with enormous energy and a great sense of fun by the debuting George Clooney. He does a very stylish job – perhaps a little too stylish in places – and shows a good deal of promise should he decide to do this on a regular basis. He’s also managed to attract a first-rate set of actors – Brad Pitt and Matt Damon appear very briefly, but further up the cast list we find Rutger Hauer, who in the course of a quite small part dispels all memory of the rubbish he’s done lately and reminds you of just how damned good he can be. Julia Roberts sends herself up winningly as a femme fatale spy, and Drew Barrymore affectingly provides the film’s emotional centre. (Clooney’s pretty good too, though I suspect the director shot every scene in his favour.) But the film really belongs to Sam Rockwell, who gives a superb performance in a challenging and complex role. It’s only through the nuances of his acting that we get any clue as to what we’re supposed to believe in this film, or what it’s actually about.

And, without spoiling it too much (I hope), this film is really about not a dangerous mind but a mind in the throes of crisis. It is entirely understandable that a man whose main achievement was originating the format for Blind Date would want to embroider his life story just a little – or more than a little in this case. This is the story of how the dreams of youth transform into the fantasies of middle age. On the surface this is an absurd, deadpan comedy, but it has a dark and serious heart. The whole package is sharp, intelligent, and tremendous fun. Recommended.

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