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Being John Malkovich

review by Eric Dahl


Rated R

Studio: USA Films/Universal

Starring: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, and John Malkovich

Running Time: 113 Minutes

Written by Charlie Kaufman

Directed by Spike Jonze


Retail Price: $24.99

Features: Theatrical Trailer, TV Spots, Full "7 Floor Orientation" and "American Arts & Culture Presents. . . John Horatio Malkovich, Dance of Despair and Disillusionment" Videos Shown in the Film, Featurette "An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering", Featurette "An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Background Driving", An Interview with Director Spike Jonze, Spike's Photo Album, Cast & Crew Biographies & Filmographies, and "A Page with Nothing on It".

Specs: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen Transfer, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround, English Captions, French Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, and Chapter Search (32 Chapters).

"There's a tiny door in that empty office. It's a portal, Maxine. It takes you inside John Malkovich. You see the world through John Malkovich's eyes, then, after about fifteen minutes, you're spit out into a ditch on the side of The New Jersey Turnpike" Spike Jonze has had more success in the short time he has been a director than most feature film directors garner in their whole careers, and boy does he deserve it. Having a large history in the field of commercials and music videos, most notably the video for Weezer's "Buddy Holly" which had the band electronically edited into an episode of "Happy Days", Jonze could have taken the road of Kinka Usher, whose commercial ridden history led him to make the visually amazing, but otherwise extremely lacking "Mystery Men".

Instead, he waited for a great script to match the stunning visuals that would engulf the film, and fate would have it that writer Charlie Kaufman's debut effort was the film that Jonze was looking for. "Being John Malkovich", the result, is a film that might make the contradiction "debut masterpiece" not a contradiction anymore.

"Being John Malkovich" tells the story of Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), a puppeteer who's very talented but not very successful at his art. After a violent run-in with a parent who didn't feel Schwartz's act was appropriate for his daughter, Craig's wife, Lotte (a practically unrecognizable Cameron Diaz), convinces him to find a real job. Craig finds and acquires a job as a filing clerk on the 7 floor of a tall skyscraper (don't ask, it's a long story) and one day, accidentally finds a two-foot-tall door which leads directly into actor John Malkovich's head. Fifteen minutes later, poof, he falls from the sky right next to the New Jersey turnpike. Schwartz's crush and co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) believes they can milk this for every penny it's worth and eventually sells tickets into Malkovich's head. And that's only the first 45 minutes! What follows are some of the most imaginative plot twists, most memorable characters, and one of the most thought-provoking endings ever stricken onto celluloid.

On many critics' 10 best lists, and currently high on the Internet Movie Database's top 250 movies of all time, and my all-time absolute favorite movie, "Being John Malkovich" is a quirky, highly original, perfectly cast, cinematic tour-de-force which marks the beginning of the film career of auteur Spike Jonze, the man who might just become the next Steven Spielberg.

The 16:9 1.85:1 transfer is very good, but due to the indoor nature of the movie, you won't want this as a picture reference disc. The picture is sharp, and the blacks are solid and never wavering. While the rest of the movie is primarily dimly lit, the ending scenes, however, in broad daylight near a swimming pool, are colorfully and visually amazing. The swimsuits, hair, skin, and water are brilliant and colorful, but not at all oversaturated. All in all, the anamorphic picture is pretty dark, very well done, and unfortunately is never really amazing until the closing scenes.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is one of the best that I've ever heard. While this is mostly a dialogue driven film, the 5.1 is used extremely well whenever the score is present or we're inside Malkovich's head. Carter Burwell's score, which has touches of his equally masterful score to the Coen Brothers' "Fargo", is perfectly fitting to the film, being slightly haunting and memorable. The score never really tells us exactly how we're supposed to feel for the characters, but perfectly accompanies the action such as the chase through Malkovich's subconscious and the before mentioned thought-provoking final scene. The 5.1 mix when we're inside Malkovich's head perfectly mimics being inside a human head. Chewing and talking come from the center channel, and things we hear through Malkovich are placed exactly where they would be heard in real life.

I'm somewhat disppointed that Spike Jonze didn't do a commentary for the DVD, however, I believe this is also an example of why Paul Thomas Anderson said he didn't do a commentary for the DVD of his sophomore effort "Magnolia", the film stands by itself just fine. On the contrary, the eatures included are plentiful and even with my disappointment with the ack of a commentary, I'm quite content with what Universal/USA provided on the disc.

First, I'll tackle the Theatrical Trailer and TV Spots. The theatrical trailer, while it only showcases some of the funniest lines and scenes in the movie, has a great piece of mambo music keeping the fast pace, is intriguing, and made me absolutely want to see the movie when I first saw it. The TV spots are even quirkier than the Trailer: the first one "JM Inc."is an infomercial promoting "JM Inc." (The "company" in the movie which sells tickets into Malkovich's head) and takes the whole idea very seriously, directing viewers to, a web-site which also takes the idea of being John Malkovich completely straight-faced, offering testimonials, how the whole process works, and a sign-up form. The second TV spot "Tunnel", the only one to show footage from the movie, is composed of scenes from of movie of people looking through and climbing through the doorway into Malkovich's head, and then the door closing abruply. The third TV spot, "Spithead", simply shows an escalator filled with people rising into the back of a silhouette of John Malkovich's head, and Malkovich pushing them out his mouth using his tongue. The fourth, and final, "Vesselis Humanus" tells the process of becoming someone else using an electronic monotonous voice while diagrams flash on the screen. All of these are really imaginitive and I wouldn't doubt if they were all Spike Jonze's creations.

Second, the "7 Floor Orientation" and "American Arts & Culture Presents...

John Horatio Malkovich, Dance of Despair and Disillusionment" featurettes.

Both of these were shown in the film, and were put here as a nice extra touch (ala the Televangelist Featurette on "The Silence of the Lambs" Criterion Collection and "The Frank T.J. Mackey Seminar" on "Magnolia").

Third, the "An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering", is a short segment on the real story behind puppeteers and how they reacted to this film.

Fourth, "An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Background Driving", is a humorous camcorder shot interview with one of the extras hired to drive by the camera in the New Jersey Turnpike scenes (while she's driving).

Fifth, "An Interview With Director Spike Jonze", the highlight of the extras, is a camcorder shot interview with Spike Jonze while he's driving. I don't want to give away how it ends, but the climax of the interview has got to be the most hilarious extra on the whole disc.

Sixth, "Spike's Photo Album", if I counted right is 31 pictures, mixed black and white, taken on the set of the film. They're definitely worth checking out.

Seventh, the "Cast & Crew Biographies & Filmographies", are pretty standard, but a welcome addition to the disc.

The last extra, "A Page With Nothing On It", is a quirky, pretty self-explanatory extra.

"Being John Malkovich" and its DVD can be summed up in one word, brilliant. The film is a worthy addition to anyone's collection, with an excellent story that is far from the typical Hollywood garbage that gets pumped out every year. With all the extras included, this is pretty much an absolutely perfect DVD.

(5/5, NOT included in final score)




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