Tag Archives: Sam Rockwell

CAPSULE: CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (2002)

DIRECTED BY: George Clooney

FEATURING: , , George Clooney,  Julia Roberts

PLOT: Chuck Barris is a producer of game shows by day and a free-lance CIA agent by night; the successes and failures of his parallel careers are remarkably in-step with one another.

Still from Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With as screen-writer and television’s slimiest visionary as the subject matter, we might have been on course for a nomination. However, director George Clooney grounds Confessions of a Dangerous Mind as conventional, hip Hollywood fare, embellished with some creative window dressing.

COMMENTS: An unlikeable protagonist, an unbelievable premise, and an odd fixation with montages add up to a dark and breezy viewing experience in George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. In his directorial debut, Clooney artfully weaves a tale of Cold War intrigue, mental collapse, and really, really bad television programming. Screen-writer Charlie Kaufman’s fingerprints coat Confessions, but while self-examination-through-self-debasement oozes throughout it is simultaneously an odd character study as well as a Hollywood thriller. Chuck Barris strikes us as a skeezy guy doing the CIA’s skeezy work.

Lustful from the age of eleven, Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) crashes through his youth horny and bitter. Wanting nothing more than to score with women, he is adrift in life, failing at his job as a minor, minor television executive. His fortunes change when he encounters Jim Byrd (George Clooney), a CIA recruiter who wants to take Chuck on as a freelance agent. After his run in with this shady emissary, Chuck’s life in the Biz immediately turns around: his “Dating Game” pilot is picked up, and his career rockets to a grimy pinnacle of debased pop success. Taking his longtime lover and friend Penny (Drew Barrymore) for granted, he dallies with classically educated, icily erotic fellow contractor Patricia Wilson (Julia Roberts). Chuck’s TV ratings begin to slide at the same time his CIA career takes a dangerous, deadly turn.

Confessions‘ budget hovers just below the thirty-million-dollar mark, but considering the actors involved, Clooney makes that outlay look altogether frugal. To accommodate, he uses a lot of novel sets to  create an illusion of grandeur, some deal-making with his fellow heavy-hitters (Julia Roberts, for instance, agreed to work for a mere $250,000), and plenty of vintage television footage. Beyond that there are the montages. In fact, the whole thing feels like a montage of montages: a montage of Barris’ rise, a montage of Barris’ CIA training, a montage of Barris’ conquests, a montage of… you get the picture. With Confessions, the point where flashback montage and current montage meet is blurred by further montage.

Perhaps it’s appropriate. Chuck Barris is constantly running just to stay in place as Sam Rockwell’s sickly charm carries the character through all the depressing motions, showcasing someone that we cannot help but loathe while simultaneously rooting for. After the suicide of an assassin buddy, he refers to him as a “stagehand.” That description is strangely apt: Barris and his cohorts were the kinds of guys that constantly lurked around the periphery, making sure the show went on without others’ awareness. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind acts as a eulogy for these men and women. All those spooks and hitmen were at heart ordinary people trapped in the giant reality show of the Cold War. And though heavily laden with regret and contemptuousness, this darkly comic biopic shows the tenderness and humanity of history’s dirtbags.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The whole is less than the sum of its parts: the dueling Kaufman and Barris takes on self-flagellation don’t exactly mesh. This film, a shape-shifting apologia-biopic as weird as Adaptation, is too cold for its own good.” –Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: GENTLEMEN BRONCOS (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Jared Hess

FEATURING: Michael Angarano, , Sam Rockwell, Halley Feiffer, Jennifer Coolidge, Hector Jimenez

PLOT:  A pretentious pulp fantasy icon who’s run out of ideas steals a home-schooled teen writer’s sci-fi epic, “Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years,” and positions it to be his next bestseller; meanwhile, the original author has sold the property to a team of his nerdy peers who are making it into a YouTube-quality adaptation.

Still from Gentlemen Broncos (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Weirder than expected and funnier than its reputation suggests, Gentlemen Broncos falls just short of a general recommendation, and just short of being weird enough to be considered for the List.  You may want to take a flyer on this uneven but sporadically hilarious spoof of sci-fi nerdom, though; the beyond-offbeat tone is sure to alienate many, but if you can connect with it you may come away with a peculiar affection for this messy film, the kind of devotion an owner gives a particularly ugly dog.

COMMENTS: Gentlemen Broncos is a movie with three different tonal layers, which sometimes conflict, but ensure that the movie remains stylistically unpredictable and never gets boring.  The base tone —which might be styled “nerd grotesque”—takes some getting used to; in fact, you’re going to have to work to meet the movie halfway on it. Jared Hess creates a world as seen through the eyes of a frightened adolescent: everyone young Benjamin encounters is uncomfortably strange, every social interaction awkward and fraught with the danger of humiliation. It’s as if every character in the film is some variation of Napoleon Dynamite. His role models include a nightgown-designing mom who supplements her income by selling homemade popcorn balls and a Church-appointed Big Brother with an incontinent albino python and a perpetually stoned expression framed by permed blond ringlets.  His peers are fellow maladjusted home-schooled youths: when he first meets the scheming Tabatha, she fleeces him for half his meal allowance, then cozies up to him by sitting next to him on the bus and letting him give her a squishy hand massage.  Even stranger is Lonnie, the creepiest kid on the block, a no-budget movie mogul whose flamboyant air of artistic superiority could have been hilarious if not for the freakish dental prosthetic he wears that stretches his mouth into a permanent Mr. Sardonicus death mask.  This base layer, a suburban universe inhabited by nothing but oddball losers makes for an uncomfortable, subtly nightmarish viewing experience, in the mold of a gentler and geekier John Waters.

Dr. Ronald Chevalier introduces another dimension to the film. The self-important sci-fi idol and general tool, obsessed with American Indian spirituality and breastfeeding, is shrewdly and purposefully characterized by Jemaine Clement.  He speaks with a carefully affected accent that suggests Ivy League superiority without having any actual geographic significance, and answers his omnipresent blackberry headset with a self-important “Chevalier” that makes you want to smack him.  The scene where he pompously lectures aspiring teen writers on the importance of providing characters with “magical” names is a pinpoint piece of character-assassination comedy.  If the entire movie had been made out of scenes like that, Gentlemen Broncos would be acknowledged as a satirical masterpiece.

These two layers—the uncomfortably quirky and the sharply sardonic—exist uneasily together, but the wild cards, and the segments of most interest to fans of the weird, are in the third layer, the dramatizations of the “Yeast Lords” adventure. The saga involves the mysterious properties of yeast (which look like cow patties and allow a Yeast Lord to fly), stolen gonads, clones, cyclopses with ray guns, and flying reindeer mounted with rocket launchers. We see three iterations of the tale scattered throughout the film: Benjamin’s original concept (with a manly Sam Rockwell as the hero) and Chevalier’s plagiarized version (he changes the protagonist into a “tranny” in an Edgar Winter wig, also portrayed by Rockwell, in a weak attempt to hide the story’s origins), as well as the amateur film adaptation by Lonnie, who doctors the script and casts himself as the female lead. Outrageously cheap CGI is used to achieve the flying and pink puke spewing effects, adding another layer of parody to the already tongue-in-cheek proceedings.  There’s brilliantly absurd dialogue throughout: “we’re investigating ways to strengthen the military—your gonad is being used for research,” “take me to your yeast factory!,” and Chevalier’s memorable couplet (from an alien lullaby) “within my breast meat there is a famine/No more sweets in the mammary cannon.” Without the “Yeast Lords” scenes, Gentlemen Broncos would be a highly peculiar mix of over-quirkiness and pulp fiction satire; scattering these histrionic playlets throughout turns the movie into something meriting the designation “weird.”

On the strength of Hess’ Napoleon Dynamite and the less-successful but still profitable Nacho Libre, Broncos received a generous $10 million budget and was scheduled for a limited release by Fox Searchlight.  The film was savaged by critics and shunned by audiences; its opening weekend was a disaster, netting just over $100,000 theatrically.  The movie was far too weird for mainstream filmgoers, but it stands to improve its performance on home video and could even develop a small cult following. Extreme weird movie trivia: Robin Ballard (star of the Certified Weird Elevator Movie) has a bit role in Broncos as a “female assistant.” Further trivia: the movie is set in a fictional Utah town called “Saltair.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a finely deranged, sillyhearted satire… the aesthetic is followed through to the end by the filmmaker, who’s fixated on whatever weirdness he can devour.”–Brian Orndorf, DVD Talk (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: MOON (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Duncan Jones

FEATURING: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey

PLOT: Sam, two weeks away from finishing a lonely three year contract on a one man lunar mining base, finds to his shock that he’s not alone on the moon—and the identity of his new companion leads him to investigate the true nature of his assignment.

Still from Moon (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  I had high hopes of this turning weird, especially due to the guarded plot synopses that implied there might be some sort of lunatic psychological thriller angle to the film.  Unfortunately, although Moon threatens to veer off reality road and foray into the weird wilderness a few times in the early going, it soon straightens its course and plays as a straightforward work of speculative fiction.  Still, as a very well-made film with some unusual sights and an unusually thoughtful tone, it’s worth the trip to Moon for anyone seeking something off Hollywood’s well-beaten path.

COMMENTSMoon starts out as a mystery: something is “off” about the lunar base, and specifically about Sam’s role in the mission.  But the mystery is answered early on, and from that point out the film plays as a drama, milking Sam’s situation (a situation that is unique in the history of mankind) of every implication it can think of.  From Sam’s loneliness and increasing anger, desperation, and finally resignation, the film generates a genuine pathos.  The shift from mystery to drama is accomplished seamlessly, because Moon‘s the unifying principle isn’t really its plot, but its exploration of ideas about what the future may look like, what ethical challenges and basic lifestyle changes future technologies may bring us.  First time director Jones confesses to being inspired by, and borrowing from, “hard” science fiction films like Outland and Silent Running, but Moon inevitably evokes the granddaddy of them all—2001—more than anything (especially since the base’s intelligent computer, Gerty, is basically HAL updated with emoticons).  Jones doesn’t shy from the inevitable comparison, but embraces it and uses it to the story’s advantage.  Sam Rockwell’s performance, which requires him to be onscreen for nearly every shot, could be a career defining moment, craftwise.  The plot is intricate, requiring the viewer to pay closer attention than they may be accustomed to, but the tale is told well, and despite a few curve balls it’s not as confusing as it might have been.  Special effects are minimal, but the lunar landscapes exhibit all the eerie alien beauty one would hope for.

Despite its overall intelligence, Moon is far from airtight.  Some of the technologies used in the film seem more like plot devices than rational scientific solutions to problems faced by future humans.  Objections arise that could have been fully addressed in a novel or long story, but in a ninety minute movie, the audience will have to do some work on their own to fill in the gaps, or simply agree to suspend disbelief.  But, in an era when science’s role in science fiction is increasingly relegated to the production of rayguns and killer robots, Moon‘s serious speculation about the world of the rapidly approaching future is a breath of fresh oxygen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…never quite gets out from under the titanic shadow of his obvious inspirations. The movie feels like a full-length homage along the lines of Roman Coppola’s CQ, a dream within a dream rather than a soup-to-nuts vision… Moon chokes in its last reel, skirting the ambiguous terrain of Tarkovsky and Kubrick in favor of a too-pat ending. But [Jones] creates a world worth soaking up for an hour and a half, an engrossing journey in the realm of the selves.”–Sam Adams, Philadelphia City Paper