Raphael Pour-Hashemi has reviewed the Region 2 release of Being John Malkovich.
A film that deserves every adjective known to man thrown at it – bizarre, surreal, hilarious, dark, inventive, original – the list is endless.
Let’s face it, the makers of Being John Malkovich deserve a medal for managing to bring Charlie Kaufman’s wickedly offbeat script to the screen. The title suggests a fly-on-the-wall style documentary exploring the day-to-day life of famous actor John Malkovich, star of such vehicles as Dangerous Liaisons, In The Line Of Fire and The Killing Fields. However, the film’s actual content is so far removed from what is expected, that Being John Malkovich must surely rank as one of the most inventive, original and yet daring films of the last ten years.
Craig Schwartz (an almost unrecognisable John Cusack) is stuck in a frustrated rut in his life. His pet obsessed wife Lotte (an even more unrecognisable Cameron Diaz) seems more concerned with providing a decent home to various animals as opposed to satisfying his marriage needs. Also, money is drying up, and Craig’s dreams of becoming a world-famous puppeteer appear to be decaying slowly, and he is pressured into finding a job. Because of his quick hands, a skill necessary for artful puppetry, Craig applies for a job as a filing clerk. His job requires him to work on the seventh and a half floor (don’t ask) in a strange office block, and his days are spent trying to persuade the object of his lust Maxine (the very sexy Catherine Keener) into having an affair. Whilst losing a file behind a storage cabinet, Craig discovers a strange and murky tunnel hidden behind the cabinet. Crawling inside, Craig finds the tunnel to actually be a portal, and the destination is inside the actor John Malkovich’s head! Although Craig has no say with regards to Malkovich’s actions, he can clearly witness what the actor is up to! Fifteen minutes later, Craig is spat out of Malkovich’s head and deposited on a New Jersey turnpike. This surreal yet fantastic experience inspires the business side of Craig’s brain, and with the help of Maxine, who has succumbed to Craig’s persistence, the two start to covertly sell trips to the paying public inside Malkovich’s head! This is just the start of the frantic and crazy twists and turns that litter the film.
Where do you start when reviewing a film like this? Firstly, you have to picture how freaked out John Malkovich must have been when the script arrived through his door. Apparently he threw away every version of the script he was sent without reading it, dismissing the senders as some psycho fans pushing the limit. This was until the film’s director Spike Jonze, wonder boy of MTV music videos, had to borrow the help of his father-in-law Francis Ford Coppolla to convince Malkovich. Malkovich would be a fool to turn this sort of film down, not because of the ego-inflating title, but because the role he was offered to play as ‘himself’ was for him a career saver in an ironic twist of reality. In fact, you could argue that Malkovich deserved to be the first ever person to be Oscar nominated for playing themselves!
Because the script by Charlie Kaufman is so offbeat and so fresh, the film is very hard to pigeonhole as a result; Is it a comedy? Or a fantasy? Or even a dark satire on American commercialism pushed to the extreme? One thing’s for sure, and that’s Being John Malkovich sits in its own genre in complete solitude. This isn’t one of those films in which every department of the production is world-class, in fact far from it. Jonze’s direction is pedestrian at best with little of his trademark flashy visuals. Reports from the set suggested that he was less than articulate with his direction (or maybe that’s just a famous Jonze-style wind up?). The actors all perform admirably, although the lesser-known stars such as Catherine Keener and Orson Bean provide the best performances. The musical score by Carter Burwell is eerily piano driven, which suggests the darker tone of the film, and even the cinematography by Lance Acord is excessively gloomy and lacking in bright composition. What makes the film a quirky masterpiece is the already mentioned script by Charlie Kaufman. The screenplay is so accomplished that every other aspect of the film’s production is running on auto-pilot, and yet the film still manages to work perfectly. The film is flawless until the last quarter, in which its attempts to tie plot events up are unnecessary and actually make the film appear silly, something which the first three-quarters of the film deftly avoided.
Being John Malkovich is certainly a different-than-usual evening’s entertainment due to its heavy dose of hysterically surreal humour, and it won’t appeal to the narrow-minded filmgoers who seek formulaic escapism. It’s the type of film that renews your faith in modern cinema, even if nothing has since come near it in terms of originality (and that includes Moulin Rouge & Amelie).
Academy Awards 1999
Academy Award Nominations 1999
Best Director – Spike Jonze
Best Supporting Actress – Catherine Keener
Best Original Screenplay – Charlie Kaufman
Presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen, the print is mostly dirt-less, and is a sturdy composition if deliberately gloomy. It’s not one of those transfers in which the visual beauty of the film is striking, but the transfer certainly does the film justice.
A 5.1 surround mix is provided, which is perhaps unnecessary for a film such as Being John Malkovich which is mostly dialogue driven. Even so, the mix is essentially 2.0 in dialogue with added surround elements for the more surreal scenes, such as the portal into Malkovich’s head, which contain excellent use of sound channelling! The mix is in terms of audible clarity very acceptable, even if its uneven throughout due to the film’s frequent shift in and out of fantasy.
Menu: A very cold yet intriguing menu, in which a picture of a human head is shown split into sections representing the sections of the DVD, and the background subtly moves as if the menu were a Da Vinci diagram. Carter Burwell’s score for the film also accompanies the menu.
Packaging: The usual amaray casing and artwork from Columbia Tristar Home Video, with a different cover compared to the Region 1 version, and a 4 page chapter inlay/guide to entering someone’s head!
America Arts & Culture Entertainment Presents: John Horatio Malkovich – Dance Of Despair And Disillusionment: The full four minute version of the fake special on John Malkovich, used in the film to promote his talents. Even though it presents nothing new from the film, it’s nice to have it available to view in its own right.
7 1/2 Floor Initiation: The two minute promotional film shown to Craig in the film which documented the reason why the office block in which he works contains a seventh and a half floor. Again, contains nothing new from the film, but better to have in its own right than to have not.
Theatrical Trailer: A funny trailer, giving the film a lighter feel than it actually has, with excellent use of the Michael Kamen music score from Brazil to give it that nightmarish bureaucratic look.
TV Spots: Four very brief promotional TV Spots. ‘JM Inc.’ is a spoof TV advert for John Malkovich’s head. ‘Tunnel’ is just a brief glimpse of Craig (John Cusack) peering into the portal tunnel. ‘Spithead’ is a very basic python-esque simple animation of John Malkovich’s head spitting people out. Finally, a thirty-three second guide into how humans can be transported into someone’s head, complete with computer voice-over.
An Interview With Director Spike Jonze: He certainly is enigmatic! This interview is provided with a full disclaimer that it was recorded under duress due to time constraints, and Jonze is filmed answering questions whilst driving. He appears neurotically nervous and very camera shy, and events take a surreal turn when he stops the car to throw up! Could be real, but is probably a big joke on the viewers.
Spike’s Photo Album: A good collection of photos taken on set by the director Jonze, complete with user navigation.
Cast And Filmmakers: A good and comprehensive guide to the major players of Being John Malkovich, complete with pictures so you can identify who is who.
Don’t Enter Here – There Is Nothing Here – Exactly that, and perfectly in keeping with the bizarre themes of the film if completely pointless.
Being John Malkovich was the best film of 1999, and there is a good argument supporting its claim as one of the most original films to ever grace the cinemas. The picture and sound departments of the DVD are better than average, but are let down by sparse extras that contain little real value. Some extras are missing from the Region 1 version, such as the guide to being a ‘driving extra’ for a film, but these extras weren’t of much value anyhow. Ultimately, this is a DVD crying out for a commentary or at least a ‘making-of’ documentary, but sadly, both are notable in their absence.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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