Film: Being John Malkovich
Cast: John Cusack, John Malkovich, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, Mary Kay Place, Orson Bean
MPAA rating: N/A
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Being John Malkovich
Director: Spike Jonze
When Being John Malkovich appeared in 1999, few people knew what to expect. Here was a film that was written by a former sitcom writer, directed by a music video auteur, based around a positively ridiculous concept (a semi-professional puppeteer discovers a portal into the head of actor John Malkovich that drops you outside the New Jersey Turnpike 15 minutes later), with its stunning female lead (Cameron Diaz) actually made to look absolutely unattractive, and — oh yeah — even the pet monkey has a flashback sequence at one point. What should’ve been the laughing stock of the film industry instead turned out to be so much more: Being John Malkovich one of the most stunningly original, innovative, and unquestionably tragic films to appear within the past two decades.
Directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman (who’s since made a small cottage industry out of writing Charlie Kaufman movies), Being John Malkovich is a rare film that doesn’t live and die by its kooky premise: it explores every emotional facet of it through and through. The film’s first half-hour, in fact, might as well be the greatest comedy ever printed to celluloid, as the wacky sets (being on the seventh-and-a-half floor of an office building means that every character must uncomfortably slouch over at all times), sharp dialogue, and unique brand of humor (watch the scene where Craig tries to sound-out Maxine’s name without even hearing it) wins you over with quirky charm, completely disarming you for what’s to come. The film’s tragic final hour delves deep into heavy, dramatic territory, exploring such themes as modern day celebrity, homoerotic personal discovery, psychological intimidation, and spiritual imprisonment without even blinking an eye. Yes, Being John Malkovich exists entirely within its own universe, and, as such, even a Charlie Sheen cameo works wonders.
When the film arrived in 1999, it was greeted with deserving critical acclaim and three Oscar nominations: Jonze for Directing, Kaufman for Screenplay (natch), and Catherine Keener for Supporting Actress for her positively villainous turn as Maxine (Keener would go on to have small roles in Kaufman’s later projects Adaptation. and Synecdoche, New York). Yet as soul-crushingly good as Keener is, there are few films that truly live and die by the performance of an ensemble, and what Malkovich is blessed with is career-best turns from every single actor involved. Have you ever seen John Cusack play someone so emotionally distant, or Cameron Diaz craft a character that’s so hopelessly unsure of her own personal identity? King of them all, however, is Malkovich himself, delivering a performance so nuanced and pitch-perfect that you forget he’s even acting: the first time that Cusack’s Craig Schwartz begins controlling Malkovich — his body slightly seizuring at the adjustment — we buy it without question. It always feels like Malkovich is losing control of himself, a task that’s even more daunting when you consider that Malkovich is playing a parody of himself the entire time. Even when the ultimate inevitable happens — Malkovich crawling into the portal into his own head — the resulting scene is blessed with a confusion and surrealism that defies any proper description: it’s a moment that can only be accomplished on film, and truly must be seen to be believed.
Ten years later, the film hasn’t aged a day. It’s still as fresh and as ruthlessly innovative as it was upon first viewing, by no means deluded by the numerous Kaufman (and Kaufman-esque) scripts that have been produced in its wake. Part fantasy, part comedy, and part drama, it’s fair to say that no other film — before or after — has ever given us a universe so unrelentingly unique or a story so profoundly heartbreaking. Evan Sawdey
Film: Princess Mononoke
Studio: Toho Company
Cast: Yoji Matsuda, Yuriko Ishida, Yūko Tanaka, Kaoru Kobayashi
MPAA rating: N/A
First date: 1999
US Release Date: 1999-10-29
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Director: Hayao Miyazaki
We’re living in the golden age of a number of phenomena — texting, blogging, “green”, and Google — about which one can be suspicious, or at least ambivalent. But we can all be delighted in what is truly, today, a golden age of animation. I am not a fan of CGI, though it can have its moments. (Certainly The Lord of the Rings is some kind of miracle.) Its use and overuse in most other movies is distracting and usually boring. But not when it comes to animation. From the uniformly incredible Pixar movies to the Ice Age series (Hail, Scrat!), the steady stream of animated films over the last ten years, as a group, clearly surpasses the collective Oscar winners for the same period.
Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke helped lead the way. Named by Roger Ebert as number six in his Ten Best movies of the year, Princess Mononoke is visually stunning, wildly inventive in plot and character, complex, involving, and proof that anime’s visual style (which otherwise leaves me cold) can be elevated to high cinematic art.
Set in feudal Japan, there are really two interwoven plot lines in what is essentially an ecological message movie. One is the love story between prince Ashitaka, who has been poisoned by a demon wild boar, and Princess Mononoke, a wild child and avenging superhero adopted as a baby by wolves. The prince has been charged by his villagers to find the boar’s origins and find a cure. The princess is fighting a battle to save her forest and its inhabitants from the industrial ravages of Irontown.
The second plotline is the attempt of Lady Eboshi, the leader of Irontown, to destroy the Forest Spirit, the presiding deity of the forest, in order to consolidate her power. The plot has a great many twists and turns, including a stunning battle between the Irontown army and an army of wild boars, and the beheading of the Forest Spirit, which results in the near destruction of the entire region when it is covered in a lethal black goop. Unlike most American animated movies, and one of Princess Mononoke’s charms, the ending is not all sweetness and hope. The world is saved and there is perhaps a future for prince and princess, but much has been irretrievably lost and love may not survive in the new, more modern, emerging world.
Not surprisingly, Princess Mononoke was the biggest box office hit of all time in Japan until Titanic came along, and although its limited American release was disappointing, when released on DVD the movie did extremely well, no doubt helped along by Ebert’s endorsement.
As much as I (and my two daughters) love this film, it’s not our favorite Miyazaki. The wildly inventive and visually stunning Spirited Away (2001) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) both have moments that match classic Disney films of the ’50s. We can’t wait to see Miyazaki’s newest film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, which is in production for American release. From the look of the trailer it promises to reveal a master at the height of his powers. Christopher Guerin