4 Great Films from “Being John Malkovich” to “Her.”
Spike Jonze began his filming career with skating videos and music videos, before he went on to be an acclaimed filmmaker. And being that we’re going to be seeing his upcoming documentary “Beastie Boys Story” on AppleTV near the end of April, I’ve decided to look back at his directorial masterpieces, beginning with the 1999 classic “Being John Malkovich” and ending with the 2013 marvel “Her.”
“Being John Malkovich”
This was Jonze’s film debut when John Cusack, as struggling puppeteer Craig Schwartz, finds himself a filing job, and enters a small door that leads him to the mind of John Malkovich. For 15 minutes, he gets to see through the eyes of him, and then gets spit out on the New Jersey Turnpike. He, his is animal-obsessed wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) and his co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) are both so amazed by this fantasy-turned-reality, that they decide to make it a tourist attraction, and it changes their lives.
Lotte gets turned on by Maxine, who also gets turned on by Malkovich-leading Craig to go mad. And they’re able to control his words and movements. So, basically, John Malkovich is now their puppet.
You also have the recently departed Orson Bean as Dr. Lestor, the man who found a way inside Malkovich’s mind, Mary Kay Place as a ditsy office secretary, and Charlie Sheen as himself, who talks with the real Malkovich.
And when Malkovich goes inside himself, it’s one Hell of a nightmare for himself.
“Being John Malkovich” is one of the most inventive and unusual comedies I have ever seen. The puppeteering during the introduction and the last half hour looks mesmerizing in the ways they capture the mood and tone of Craig’s state; the idea of a 7 and a half floor with the ceilings lowered than normal floors is whimsical; and the true colors behind the Malkovich mind control is both ingenious and dangerous. And I’ll never forget that brilliant chase sequence, during the last half hour when the characters go through on portal after another in the actor’s timeline.
Cusack is charming and bizarre, Diaz and Keener both deliver the goods, Bean is fresh and interesting, and Malkovich is hilarious and emotional when he’s both himself and controlled. So, you have some wonderful actors doing things we’ve never seen before, and leave it to Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman to conjure up a tour-de-force like “Being John Malkovich.”
This one takes place in 1998, before and during the filming of Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich,” and before and during the publication of Susan Orlean’s novel “The Orchid Thief.” We get Nicolas Cage in a double role as Charlie Kaufman and his fictionalized twin brother Donald, Meryl Streep as Orlean, and Chris Cooper as orchid hunter John Laroche. It’s a movie that uses some embellished elements to bring out the best of these real-life people. It’s stranger than fiction in the best way possible.
We see Charlie and Donald as different talents with the former being self-loathing and the latter being an eccentric freeloader, who decides to get in the writing game. Charlie is trying to adapt “The Orchid Thief” to the big screen, while suffering from writer’s block. In fact, he has to have his brother pose as him during his interview with Orlean. And Donald writes a screenplay filled so many cliches, that it actually works.
Meanwhile, Orlean interviews Laroche about his case of illegally taking some rare orchids. We also see these two people in their unhappy states, and at the same time, they’re able to have a connection with each other. And they also engage themselves in a drug crime.
“Adaptation” is another gem from director Jonze and writer Kaufman, because of its emotional impact on the writer’s character and personality, and how sincere the performances are. Cage is exceptional when we see him as a doubter and an optimist, and both his characters are placed on screen, using split photography (but you already knew that concept, so why am I telling you readers that?). Streep is poetic and sensitive when she reveals her droopiness. And Cooper deserved at Supporting Actor Oscar for his ability to represent Laroche’s personalities.
There’s also a powerful scene when Brian Cox cameos as speaker Robert Mckee, who during a seminar yells at Charlie about how big the world is, has a drink with him, and gives him advice on his writing skills. Just as long as his work has an ending, and no voice-overs. This small role is so open-minded and revealing, that it’s impossible to forget.
And you also have other small roles from Tilda Swinton, Judy Greer, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ron Livingston, and even the “Being John Malkovich” cast and crew. And I love how The Turtles’ “Happy Together” is used in the ending, and as a somewhat basis for Donald’s work.
This fresh piece of meta-cinema contains enough emotions to show us real-life people in fake situations and storylines. The comedy, drama, and suspense all shake our senses, and Jonze and Kaufman both have chemistry in splicing these genres together. This is one of the best movies of its kind I have ever seen, period.
“Where the Wild Things Are”
His 2009 entry, based on Maurice Sendak’s beloved book, wasn’t a financial hit, but still won the hearts of critics and audiences. It’s a children’s film about unleashing your wild side, and Jonze gives it a low-key tone. He also guides Max Records as a lonely kid with an angry attitude, who attacks his mother (Catherine Keener), runs aways, finds a small boat, and travels to a magic island where these creatures reside.
I was not a fan of the kid’s introduction when he messes up his sister’s (Pepita Emmerichs) room and ruins his mother’s date (featuring Mark Ruffalo as her boyfriend), because I felt those moments were too negative and crazy to belong in such a kind-hearted movie. But after those moments, we’re dazzled by the film’s faithfulness and creativity of the stories.
The creatures, or “Wild Things” as we should call them, are actors wearing Jim Henson’s Creature Shop suits (not motion capture suits), and big time celebrities providing their vocal talents. You have the late James Gandolfini as Carol, the leader of the pack; Chris Cooper as Douglas, his cockatoo best friend; Forrest Whitaker and Catherine O’Hara as the couple Ira and Judith; Lauren Ambrose as KW, the loner; and Paul Dano as Alexander, the goat outcast.
This film version, with Jonze and Dave Eggers writing the screenplay, has a haunting, mesmerizing, and emotional grip that isn’t made for just kids, but adults as well. Any age group could relate to the characters’ problems in life, and the acting is sincere and truthful. We haven’t seen Records in much lately, but this is arguably his best performance of his career, because of how he puts all his energy and heart in his character. And that also goes for the voice actors, too, because they aren’t here to be goofy or cartoony, but they’re here to match the moods and tones of their Wild Things.
Jonze’s 2013 entry takes place in the near future. Not the future with flying cars, hoverboards, and food in pill form, but a melancholy one with operating systems be given artificial intelligence to think and feel. Not in “The Terminator” sense. I’m talking about it being in the style of phone sex, because Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely writer in LA, who gets Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) as his OS girlfriend.
She’s meant to have feelings and to understand his as well. Jonze writes them with personalities, and low-key performances. They (obviously) come from different worlds, and yet, they have a chemistry so sentimental, that you really do care about their feelings and outcomes.
As their relationship continues, we’re able to acknowledge their aspects of life, and how they would affect one another. This isn’t your everyday Sci-Fi movie; it’s a character study between a human and a computer. And it never condescends.
It’s all-star cast also features Amy Adams as his good-hearted neighbor, Rooney Mara as his soon-to-be ex-wife, Olivia Wilde as his sexy blind date, and Chris Pratt as his co-worker. And some voice works includes Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Brian Cox (as a hyper-intelligent OS version of Alan Waits), and even Jonze (as a potty-mouthed video game alien).
I enjoyed seeing “Her” back in 2013, during its limited NY and LA run, and revisiting this movie again makes me feel emotional inside. It’s a strange and beautiful love story without those Hollywood romance cliches, but with Jonze’s own personal touch. Phoenix delivers a fine performance as a man looking for himself, while having his experiences changed by the OS. And Johansson gives one of her best vocal performances as Samantha, and her voices gives the OS a passionate tone.
Looking at this movie now, I’m having a difficult time figuring out the negative side to this. At this point, there isn’t any. It made me laugh, it made cry, and it made me smile. And Jonze deserved that Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, because he sees things in these characters, and he’s open-minded for believing in them.
Spike Jonze has provided characters with strange choices and ambitions, and delivers them with remarkable performances from great actors. On the side, he’s had some acting roles in such films as “Three Kings,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and “Moneyball.” And he also has produced the “Jackass” trilogy, “Human Nature,” and “Synecdoche, New York.”
I’ll definitely get back to you with his “Beastie Boys Story” documentary as soon as it comes out on AppleTV; but until then, I wanted to share with you my opinions of “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” “Where the Wild Things Are,” and Her.” Believe me, they’re not to be missed.