Friday, January 03, 2014

Being John Malkovich

Directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman, Being John Malkovich is the story about a puppeteer who takes an office job where he finds a portal where it’s destination is inside the head of actor John Malkovich. The film is an exploration into the world of a man eager to make a name for himself while dealing with his wife and an officer worker he has fallen for as they all go into Malkovich’s mind. Starring John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, Orson Bean, Mary Kay Place, and John Malkovich as himself. Being John Malkovich is a dazzling yet witty film from Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman.

The film is a simple story about a man who finds a portal where he enters the mind of actor John Malkovich as he takes his wife and a co-worker at a half-floor office to take part in the adventure. Yet, it would create a strange relationship as the two women fall where the wife would be in Malkovich’s body only for her husband to take over as he would take control of Malkovich in order to become an acclaimed puppeteer. It’s a film that has a very strange premise where people enter John Malkovich’s mind for a few fifteen minutes and then be popped out where they land into a ditch near the New Jersey turnpike. Yet it ends up being a very fascinating story about what can happen when someone enters a man’s body for fifteen minutes.

Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay is truly one of the most whimsical ideas ever to come across on paper where he brings in this unique fascination about the world of puppetry where Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) wants to gain fame with puppetry but is unable to get an audience forcing him to take a job at an office at the 7 ½ floor where he meets Maxine (Catherine Keener) whom he falls for. Though Maxine has no interest in Craig nor his frizzy-haired yet animal-loving wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz), she does become interested in Lotte only when she is inside John Malkovich’s head so she can have sex with Malkovich. It would lead to some jealousy in Craig’s part where he would enter Malkovich’s head realizing the kind of control he can have. Of course, Malkovich would find out as he realizes the craziness that is happening around him.

Kaufman’s script doesn’t just succeed in creating a world that is offbeat and unique but also take its time to explain the idea of the portal without the need of too much exposition. Even as he introduces a quirky character in a man named Dr. Lester (Orson Bean) who reveals a lot about the portal in Malkovich’s head as he would help Lotte find a way to get Craig out of Malkovich’s head. Even where it plays into Craig’s selfishness and the eventual feelings that Maxine would gain over her affairs. Kaufman’s approach to characters including the way he creates scenes such as Malkovich entering into his own head would display something that is avant-garde but also very engaging to a wide audience not used to anything this weird.

The direction of Spike Jonze is very stylized not just in the way he displays many of Kaufman’s surrealistic ideas but also in giving the film an offbeat presentation that makes it seem like it’s a bit removed from reality. Much of it involves the world that Craig and Lotte live in where their apartment is filled with animals while the world of puppetry that Craig has poured himself into plays into the melancholia that he’s carrying. Even as the puppetry itself is very life-like at times to showcase the weight of the emotions into Craig’s craft though he is treated poorly by others or was just misunderstood. It’s part of the world that Jonze presents that includes the 7 ½ floor where everyone has to walk a little hunched because the ceiling is pretty low.

Much of it has Jonze take into some intimate medium shots and close-ups to present that world while the scenes inside John Malkovich’s head are very strange as it is shown from inside his head with a little iris shot that is often commanded by a hand-held camera. Much of it to display what Malkovich is doing where things get even weirder when Malkovich goes into the portal into his own head where it would play into one of the greatest sequences in film. The mixture of surrealism and puppetry add to the visual splendor of the film as Jonze utilizes all sorts of tricks and such to play into this world that is unique. Overall, Jonze crafts a very astonishing yet rapturous film about a group of people discovering a portal into the mind of John Malkovich.

Cinematographer Lance Acord does amazing work with the film‘s cinematography with its use of low-key lights for some of the film‘s daytime and nighttime exterior scenes as well as something as displaying a sense of style into some of the film‘s interior shots with its lights. Editor Eric Zumbrunnen does excellent work with the film‘s editing with its use of jump-cuts and other rhythmic cuts to play into the film‘s humor. Production designer K.K. Barrett, with set decorator Gene Serdena and art director Peter Andrus, does brilliant work with the set pieces from the look of the 7 ½ floor as well as the portal leading to Malkovich‘s head and the home of Dr. Lester filled with books about the portal as well a shrine to Malkovich.

Costume designer Casey Storm does wonderful work with the costumes from the ragged look of Craig and Lotte to the more stylized dresses that Maxine wears as well as the clothes of Malkovich. Head makeup artist Gucci Westman and hair designer Emanuel Millar do fantastic work with the ragged look of Craig as well as the look of Lotte with her frizzy hair to play into their middle-class world. Visual effects supervisor Daniel Radford does phenomenal work with some of the film‘s visual effects which includes the scene of Malkovich entering his own head and seeing people as Malkovich. Sound editors Richard L. Anderson and Elliott Koretz do superb work with the sound to play into some of the sound effects of what goes on at the portal as well as some of the atmosphere in some of the film‘s locations.

The film’s music by Carter Burwell is exquisite for its somber yet rich orchestral score to play into some of the film‘s humor as well as melancholia with its elegant string arrangements to help further the music. Music supervisor Dawn Soler creates a terrific soundtrack that mostly consist of classical music for the puppet shows that Craig displays including the plays he creates as Malkovich as it also features a song by Bjork in the film’s final credits.

The casting by Justine Baddeley and Kim Davis-Wagner is incredible for the ensemble that is featured as it includes some notable small appearances from Sean Penn as himself, Octavia Spencer as a woman Craig meets in the elevator, W. Earl Brown as a client Craig meets early in the film, Carlos Jacott as Malkovich’s agent, David Fincher as a man interviewed for a Malkovich documentary, Spike Jonze as an assistant for a renowned puppeteer, and Charlie Sheen as a restrained, comical version of himself. Mary Kay Place is wonderful as the very odd receptionist Floris while Orson Bean is terrific as the eccentric LesterCorp head Dr. Lester who knows the secret about the portal in the 7 ½ floor.

In playing himself, John Malkovich is brilliant in conveying the man in his eccentricities while displaying his frustrations and confusion in what he discovers as well as being in control where he reinvents himself as a puppeteer. Catherine Keener is excellent as Maxine as a woman who has no interest in either Craig nor Lotte until she realizes that she can use them to have sex with Malkovich until she realizes her feelings for Lotte. Cameron Diaz is amazing as Lotte Schwartz as this weird woman who loves animals while displaying her desires to feel like a man when she’s inside Malkovich’s head. Finally, there’s John Cusack in a remarkable performance as Craig Schwartz as this talented but unappreciated puppeteer who is eager to succeed upon discovering the portal to Malkovich’s head as he decides to use Malkovich for selfish reasons which is a very funny yet dark performance from Cusack.

The 2012 2-disc Region 1 DVD/1-disc Region A Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection presents the film in a 1:85:1 theatrical aspect ratio in a new digital transfer under the supervision of its director Spike Jonze that also includes a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound for the film. The only supplement in the first disc is a selected scene commentary with Michel Gondry who talks about the film and his friendship with Spike Jonze who later joins the commentary via speakerphone. Gondry talks about specific scenes as well as his friendly-rivalry with Jonze as well as meeting Kaufman for the first time as well as tidbits into the film as it’s a very enjoyable commentary from Gondry.

The second disc’s supplements is led by a 33-minute behind-the-scenes documentary directed by Lance Bangs. While it is a simple behind-the-scenes documentary, it is one that is quite funny at times but also reveals the difficulties in making a film with a half office building floor built where crew members had to be hunched for 13 hours. It also feature moments where Spike’s brother Sam Spiegel is on set where a lot of antics happen as it’s a fun doc to watch.

The 28-minute conversation between John Malkovich and humorist John Hodgman about the film where Malkovich talks about meeting Charlie Kaufman and reading his script where he was intrigued by it. Even as he also met Spike Jonze through Francis Ford Coppola where Malkovich revealed that he wanted Charlie Sheen to play his best friend since the script originally was supposed to have Kevin Bacon as Malkovich’s friend. Malkovich also dwelled on the film’s impact where he revealed that people in his age group at the time didn’t get but it was well-received by a younger audience who didn’t know much about Malkovich. Malkovich and Hodgman also talk about how things have changed since the film about the way celebrities are viewed as the result is a very engaging conversation that is funny at times but also quite sobering in the idea of fame and celebrity.

The 15 ½ minute interview with Spike Jonze about his on-set photos has the director not just talking about his experience with the production. He also talked about photos where tries to recollect his memories about the shooting and some of the anxieties he went through since it was his first feature film. Jonze talks about his crew and cast in the film and some of things that went on in the production that didn’t make things easy which involved studio executives complaining about the look and a few other things. It’s a pretty enjoyable feature that is also directed by Lance Bangs.

The two films within the film are also shown on the DVD starting with the two-minute 7 ½ Floor Orientation which is this very cheesy orientation video about the 7 ½ floor. The four-minute “American Arts & Culture” Presents: John Horatio Malkovich: “Dance of Despair and Disillusionment” is a documentary piece that explores Malkovich’s rise as the ultimate puppeteer where he would bring new life to the art form that features a cameo from David Fincher as an editor for the Los Angeles Times.

The seven-minute and twenty-second documentary An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering by Lance Bangs is about the art of puppetry told by Phil Huber who reveals his devotion to the craft. Even as he gives his opinion on the film while young puppeteers who went to see the film also gave their opinion as it’s a nice little doc from Bangs. The supplements also includes the film’s trailer and TV spots about the film. The DVD set features a booklet that includes a conversation with Spike Jonze and pop-culture critic Perkus Tooth about the film. It’s a strange conversation that is filled with a lot of humor where Tooth does much of the talking with Jonze being dumbfounded as it’s a great read.

Being John Malkovich is an outstanding film from Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Filled with dazzling surrealism and a great cast in John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, and John Malkovich. It’s a film that explores the desire of people trying to be someone else for fifteen minutes only for that person to be horrified by the discovery. In the end, Being John Malkovich is a spectacular film from Spike Jonze.

Spike Jonze Films: Adaptation - Where the Wild Things Are - Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak - Her - My Mutant Brain

Related: The Auteurs #54: Spike Jonze - The 25 Essential Videos of Spike Jonze

© thevoid99 2014


Anonymous said...

One of the greatest films of the 90's. Seriously, 1999 is just a bounty of awesome! I just can't with how impressive that film year was as a whole. Narrowing any of my ballots is like Sophie's choice, for sure. Great write up, as usual. Love your reviews.

thevoid99 said...

Thank you. 1999 was a great year. I haven't made a list of the best films of that year though I probably will if I'm bored which I'll use Letterboxd for.

TheVern said...

I love reading your reviews, because you have such interesting Trivia. I had no idea that David Fincher was in this and I forgot Oscar winner Octavia Spencer was the girl who first showed Craig the 7 and a 1/2 floor. Great job.

thevoid99 said...

@theVern-That's one of the benefits of re-watching a film as I decided it was time to watch it again and do the DVD special features. You learn something new that you either forgot about or had just overlooked in previous viewings.