Movie Review: BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, 1999, Directed by Spike Jonze

Movie Reviews

Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring: John Cusask, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich, Catherine Keener
Review by Eli Manning


A puppeteer discovers a door in his office that allows him to enter the mind and life of John Malkovich for 15 minutes. The puppeteer then tries to turn the portal into a small business


First a Background

Being John Malkovich was a script that was passed around Hollywood for the latter part of the ’90s. Written by then-virtual unknown sitcom writer Charlie Kaufman, it was said by all to be a clever but an unfilmable script. But like a lot of classic films, a lot of stars were aligned to make this landmark movie:

-Sony Classics wanted to work with music video director Spike Jonze, who had never worked in film before. They gave him a group of scripts to read, and Jonze loved Malkovich and wanted to meet the writer.

-Jonze and Kaufman got along instantly. Perhaps because they were total opposites. Kaufman was an NYU-educated, six-paper-a-day reader, and very well informed. Perhaps too informed by most Hollywood standards. Jonze was a high school dropout who was raised on dirt bikes, sports magazines and music videos. He was shockingly not well-read and not versed at all in the history of his craft. But they were both shy and felt like outsiders in the system. And they were determined to make this script.

-Sony was in a midst of a corporate takeover and everything was in disarray. No one really wanted to make this film, but with a studio chief who believed in Jonze, a few phone calls asking for favors from Jonze’s father-in-law Francis Ford Coppola (he married Sophia Coppola), and getting Cameron Diaz/John Cusask on board, the tiny budget of 15 million was given for a project greenlight.

-Getting John Malkovich was the final step. Jonze convinced him to do it because it was a career-ending role if the film boomed, and a forever mocking of himself if it succeeded. The brash Malkovich loved the no-win odds and signed on. Who was Malkovich’s backup? No one. If he wouldn’t do it, then they wouldn’t do the film.

-After filming, Jonze and his editor spent almost a year editing the movie, something that never happens because of studio deadlines to open the film, and especially never for a film with virually no post-production special effects. But the studio was in the midst of being taken over by new owners who avoided the film as they had other things to take care of. They kept cashing the checks, so they kept editing and tweaking to try to make the mess of the coverage they shot into an actual film.

-The first cut of this final 1 hour and 45-minute film was four hours. Jonze kept on bringing in people off the street each week to watch their recent cut. They took their advice, did some reshoots and kept editing. They changed a lot of the original script and basically cut out one of the main characters, Mr. Lester, and made the film more of a relationship story.

-A year later, they had their cut, it got shown at some film festivals, and then the film become the classic that it was, making Kaufman and Jonze’s careers. They worked together again on their next project, the film Adaptation, which was another hit (this time Jonze and his editor took 18 months to edit that film).

Now the review

What makes this film great is that this is a film that totally plays like it’s a regular drama. The plot is extremely out there when Craig Swartz (John Cusask), the creatively frustrated puppeteer-turned-office filer finds a porthole that leads to actor John Malkovich’s head, where you can be inside of his brain for 15 minutes.

Jonze shoots this film on the nose, never letting the audience think this is nothing more than a relationship film between the married Craig and Lottie (the almost unrecognizable Cameron Diaz), and their mutual obsession with Maxine – the sexy vamp who is also Craig’s business partner when they start a company to let people off the street be inside Malkovich’s head.

This very funny film is perhaps one of the most realistic films in terms of the characters. We all know these types of people. Craig is a frustrated artist who feels very unloved and unsupported, as his craft is just not being recognized. Lottie is the animal-loving nice girl who just shows love in everyone she meets but never really gets it in return (you only can get so much love from an animal). And Maxine, the woman who knows how to take advantage with the skills she was given, and fit it into the world she’s currently living. The type of person who is confident because the world has been easy for her so far.

Together these characters face conflict because of the porthole to Malkovich that was found. Craig and Lottie become addicted to the fact that they can become someone else, something many people would love to do. And Maxine takes full advantage of this weakness of both of them. Maxine is not the type of person who is even the slightest bit interested in going into the porthole. She just loves herself too much.

Other than that, if you haven’t seen this spectacular film, please do. And if you’ve seen if before, watch it again because there are so many other insights that you probably missed the first time. This is one of those films with so much going on, you have to watch it twice. And it all starts with Charlie Kaufman’s original script. This is a man who has a complete understand of the three keys of storytelling: plot, theme and character. He juggles these tools in every scene and shows us the world most us knows, while telling us a whole lot about humanity.

One final note is that I have to honor the performance of John Malkovich himself. He is spectacular playing a version of himself and the version of the people inside his head playing themselves within himself. I can’t think of another actor in that time who could of played this role better than him. It could be one of the best performances of the ’90s.


Movie Review: WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, 2009, Directed by Spike Jonze

Movie Reviews

Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring: Max Records, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Paul Dano, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose
Review by Matthew Toffolo


Young, mischievous Max is sent to bed without his supper, but when his bedroom turns in to a magical jungle landscape filled with strange creatures, he embarks on a wild imaginary adventure.

I walked into this film knowing nothing. All I knew was Spike Jonze directed it and they were using the Arcade Fire song to promote it in the trailer. I also heard right before that this was based on a children’s book, but I never read it as a kid or adult.

So I saw this film with virgin eyes. And what I saw I was impressed with. This is a movie almost all of us can relate with because we’ve all been that kid who would rather live inside of our imagination than real life. And we’ve also been that adult too.

Where The Wild Things Are is a movie for everyone because this is a film about FEAR. We all have it and we all react differently to it. Our hero Max (played by 11 year old Max Records) is a young boy who is scared about his new surroundings. He’s alone and doesn’t really like it so he runs away inside of his own world.

What makes him alone is that his teacher is not aware that what he says carries a lot of weight with the children. And saying that the sun is dying might not be the best thing to say to a group of 10 year olds. His father is also gone and his mother is moving on with another man and Max doesn’t like it. And his sister is a teenager and is now living in that teenage girl world that most of them do.

So Max goes off into his own world. And when I was 10 years old I did the same thing. My own parents had their own issues and I had two older teenage sisters who were going through that stage. So in my basement I created my own world and I was the only member because it was just my imagination. And I’m sure there are millions of kids doing the same thing now.

Where The Wild Things Are gives us characters in the wilderness who are purely Max’s creation. And all of these characters are dealing with their own inner fears and loneliness. It’s like the 7 animals are all versions of his own personality. And every character just wants to find peace in their world.

But life isn’t always about peace and fun. The characters decide to create a fort where all their dreams can come true, they can always be together forever and their is a shield that doesn’t let in any fears. The fort seems to be working at first but then conflict occurs because everyone has a different idea of what happiness is.

And that’s the point of Where The Wilds Things Are. We all want to be happy and not alone all the time but sometimes a little conflict is needed in order for perspective to occur. And as we grow from kids to adults our version of happiness changes year to year. We can’t just live in a fort all the time even when you’re 10 years old. And for Max he needs to learn when it’s time to leave that fort and come back home to reality.

The most interesting character from Max’s imagination is Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini). He just wants things to remain the same all the time and when it doesn’t he doesn’t know how to handle it. His friend KW has found new friends and Carol is threatened by that because they are not what he’s familiar with. Just like how Max’s mother has a new boyfriend. Carol reacts in anger by damaging things he loves. Just like Max damages his sister’s Valentine’s present when she decides to hang around with her friends instead of him.

This is a highly fascinating movie that really deserves a second viewing because there is more than meets the eye. Max learns from his imaginary world just like an adult would by going to a therapist or writing a journal. And it’s all about how we deal with our FEARS. Something that isn’t taught for some reason in school.

Where The Wild Things Are crosses generations. A film a 5 year old can get something out of and also a 90 year old. And they said only Pixar is capable of that.

Movie Review: ADAPTATION, 2002, Directed by Spike Jonze

Movie Reviews

Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, Tilda Swinton, Maggie Gyllenhall
Review by Russell Wray


Charlie Kaufman writes the way he lives… With Great Difficulty. His Twin Brother Donald Lives the way he writes… with foolish abandon. Susan writes about life… But can’t live it. John’s life is a book… Waiting to be adapted. One story… Four Lives… A million ways it can end.


“Nothing happens in life. Life is boring.” writer Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) declares to screen writing wiz Robert Mckee (played by Brian Cox) whilst at one of his writing seminars. To this Robert Mckee fiercely replies “Nothing happens in life? Are you mad? People find love. People lose it. Everyday someone makes a conscious decision to destroy someone else”. With these two characters there is a strong summary of all of Charlie Kaufman’s work which is finding the interesting and extraordinary in everyday life. Adaptation is a great example of this because Kaufman tries to answer this question through his characters as oppose to his usual device of creating surreal scenarios to attempt to answer this question.

Writer Charlie Kaufman is given the task of adapting a book about orchids into a movie. He struggles to find a story in the book. He has to make one up. He cleverly decides to make the movie about himself and his struggle to write the movie. With the help of his twin brother Donald (also played by Nicholas Cage) he follows the writer and the subject of the book to find out who these people really are. In the same way that Kaufman has become fascinated with his subjects, the writer of the book, Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) has become obsessed with her subject John Laroche (Chris Cox). Susan lives a seemingly ordinary suburban life and seeks to escape this with flower thief Laroche. Laroche is no stranger to tragedy and leads a different life to Susan. He poaches orchids in Florida, runs an internet porn site, and is missing his front teeth.”

The most interesting area of this film is Kaufman’s struggle to write the movie. Kaufman uses the film as a tool to discuss writing conventions. Kaufman himself declares that he does not want to make a fantastical film about car chases, guns or characters faced by obstacles that they must overcome. He simply wants to make a film about flowers. As the film shows this is no easy task. The contrast between the neurotic Charlie Kaufman with twin brother Donald Kaufman works brilliantly. Donald Kaufman has followed his brother’s footsteps and begins to write a screenplay of his own. Donald attends regular screenwriting workshops and generally writes with conventions and stereotypes. Kaufman shows his cleverness here by showing the audience these conventions to enhance his more complex style of writing.

In Kaufman’s quest to find adventure in naturalism he still creates a line in the film where fact and fiction meet. The problem is trying to find where that line is. Even to the extent of his characters it is unclear how accurate they are. In this auto-biographical piece it is not clear what Kaufman has contrived to drive plot and what he has kept close to real life. Charlie Kaufman shows bravery in creating himself as a timid weak person and yet does not hint to the audience that his character is merely a representation and not his real persona. The heart pumping close of the film leaves the audience wondering about these small details. This is a different approach for Kaufman as the audience usually leaves the film wondering what the hell they just saw. This once again sticks to Kaufman’s new deconstructive approach to writing and it clear that Kaufman is attempting to master a much more subtle style of writing.

Spike Jonze’s direction doesn’t stand out but that is a good thing. It is obvious that the director has a great respect and love for Kaufman’s writing since they worked together on Being John Malkovich. Jonzes does not try anything too absurd. He works very much as a silent director and lets the characters live out the story. This is not to say that Jonze does not construct some brilliant pieces. When Laroche’s past story is revealed, Jonze’s works very simply but effectively to create a very cold but extremely naturalistic scene which will definitely shock any audience member.

Nicholas Cage puts in one of his best performances in recent memory. No offence meant to Mr. Cage but he does portray paranoia and insecurity brilliantly. He never goes over the top with his performance. He also shines as the brother Donald who is confident yet naïve. The chance to play two roles which show an actor’s range so strongly must have been a challenge for Cage but he fully leaps in and created one of his best pieces of work here. Chris Cooper won an Academy Award in 2003 for his performance in this film and rightly so. Laroche is an interesting character from a less privileged world to the other characters. Cooper plays the tragedy and emotions of the character on such a subtle level that the audience believe this character to be flesh and blood. Streep is excellent as always in portraying the naturalistic tone that Jonze creates. Some of the smaller roles in this film really stand out, especially Brian Cox as screenwriter Robert Mckee whose bite is not as bad as his bark but you would still not like to see his bite.

Adaptation is definitely not a film to be missed. It is another landmark in screenwriting from Charlie Kaufman. Even if it does not include the surreal and absurd moments that audiences loved in Being John Malkovich it works as a much more subtle and sensitive piece of cinema which drags all of the excitement out of ordinary life as best as it can.