Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999) – Even all these years later, Being John Malkovich remains one of the most distinct, original, and downright fucked up movies to ever flicker before an audience’s eyeballs. A perfect combination of the twisted talents of director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman with a tone that I can only describe as deadpan surrealism. The concept sounds like a goofy farce unsurprisingly born from mind schooled in sketch comedy (Kaufman was veteran of the underrated The Dana Carvey Show). Yet Jonze plays the material oddly straight and somehow pulls it off. Even the most outlandish sequences are presented through grimy naturualism that not only creates a deadpan comedic effect, but also lends genuine pathos to the material that makes it unexpectedly moving. It shouldn’t work, yet it does and simply sneaking a peak at Michel Gondry’ brightly and broad take on the similar Kaufman screenplay Human Nature shows just how vital Jonze’s approach was to this film’s success. There’s nothing else quite like Being John Malkovich out there with Jonze n’ Kaufman destine to spend their careers struggling to top one of the finest debuts of the 90s.
John Cusack stars as the now standard Kaufman lead, an unshaven tortured artist. In this case he is an absurdly ambitious puppeteer determined to express sexual desire and torment through marionettes. Unsurprisingly that doesn’t pay the bills. so on the advice of his monkey loving girlfriend (an equally disheveled Cameron Diaz) he takes a job as a paper filer on the 71/2 floor of a New York office building. While trying to impress the business’ resident sexpot Maxine (a never better Catherine Keener), he finds a portal that allows anyone who enters to experience life through the eyes of John Malkovich for fifteen minutes. From there, the absurdist concept gets increasingly surreal an emotionally complex with a twisted love triangle developing between Keener, Diaz, Cusack and the unwilling body of Malkovich, Cusack finding to manipulate Malkovich from inside his head, and of course the master thespian himself entering his own portal for one hell of a bizarre climax.
Kaufman’s bleak and uncompromising script remains as hilarious and unpredictable as it did in 1999, with his themes of celebrity obsession and fractured identity proving even more resonant today. Yet, despite all the oddball comedy and commentary, the film cuts most deeply as a tragic love story with a hauntingly heartbreaking conclusion as powerful as anything in the K-man’s equally loved Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. The screenwriter’s voice may drive the film, but without Jonze’s deadpan realist approach it would never work so well. The project moved him out of innovative music videos and into film (a wise career move given that even MTV doesn’t play music videos any more) and he’s never found another script more suited to his distinct tone, although Where the Wild Things Are came close before sliding into emo indulgence. The cast are universally brilliant, particularly Malkovich without whose self-effacing commitment to Kaufman’s unflattering portrayal the movie just wouldn’t work. It’s inexplicable why Malkovich was the only conceivable choice, but that elusiveness is true of the effectiveness of the movie as whole. It’s hard to rationalize exactly why Being John Malkovich is so hilarious, insightful, and moving, but films this enigmatic and entertaining are rare so it’s best not to ask too many questions. Just give yourself over to the Jonze/Kaufman/Malkovich show and be grateful that you don’t have to be spat out onto the New Jersey turnpike afterwards. It would still be worth it, but you know, just a bit of a hassle.
Criterion’s Blu-ray is, like all of their releases, a damn-near perfect package. The HD transfer offers a rendering of Jonze and cinematographer Lance Acord’s cool n’ shadowy color palate that’s easily the best the movie ever looked outside of theaters (and for a film this stylized, that means a lot). The special features alternate between being insightful like Lang Bangs’ fantastic never-before-seen fly-on-the-set documentary and flippant Spike Jonze pranks like a hysterical commentary provided by Michel Gondry who had nothing to do with the production (though he does make a late-inning phone call to Jonze for some actual commentary on the film). The best feature is probably the refreshingly honest interview with Malkovich conducted by The Daily Show’s John Hodgeman to add a little sardonic wit. The bizarre collection of features perfect captures the mocking/sincere balance of the film itself and should please any fan of Being John Malkovich, Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, or movies in general. There’s no reason not to pick up this disc unless you don’t like the movie, in which case I probably don’t like you. (Phil Brown)
The Best of WCW Clash of the Champions (Various) – From 1988 to 1997, the world’s then number two wrestling promotion WCW (formerly the NWA under Jim Crockett Promotions) put on infrequent sports entertainment spectaculars known as Clash of the Champions. These cards of matches featuring some of the biggest names in the industry (including the likes of Ric Flair, Sting, Hulk Hogan, and countless others) were run on basic cable for free when they could’ve easily been sold as Pay-Per-View cards. This week, WWE Home Entertainment (who would sadly end up usurping the money losing company early in the last decade) puts forth a comprehensive package featuring some of the best matches in this two disc Blu-ray set.
It’s somewhat telling that the compilation would be hosted by WCW stalwart and former head writer “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes (who comes across like your eldest, old school grandfather trying to tell you what it was like in his day) because a lot of the matches sadly end with what was mockingly known as the “Dusty finish,” meaning a match would end via a count out, a TV time limit draw (remember those?), or a disqualification to keep a feud going until the next actual Pay-Per-View. But those finishes while plentiful here, rarely dampen the joys of the matches shown here which will transport fans new and old back to a time when there was more action and less talking.
The first disc of the set, clocking in at over four and half hours of matches from the early years, including an epic encounter between Sting and Flair from the first Clash, which was designed to go head to head with the then WWF’s Wrestlemania IV and it managed to be a better show of athleticism than anything on their competitor’s pay card that year. Also on the disc is a phenomenal “I Quit” match between Flair and the legendary hardcore veteran Terry Funk, and elimination tag match with some great storytelling as Flair and Sting team up to face Big Van Vader and “Ravishing” Rick Rude (who still had one of the greatest gimmicks of all time), a brief but indelibly entertaining “Russian Chain Match” between Ivan Koloff and Ricky Morton, and an extremely athletic encounter between former tag team partners, the late Brian Pillman and the then “Stunning” Steve Austin.
The second disc has some decent matches, but fewer gems since the later year switch to focusing on Pay-Per-Views started to show. There’s a great match for the United States championship between Austin and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, but you might want to watch it with the sound off to enjoy it because commentators Bobby Heenan and Tony Schiavone won’t stop talking about a plot arc that night involving Hulk Hogan having to be taken to the hospital and totally ignoring a great technical match until the very end, and a Cruiserweight title match between Chris Jericho and Eddie Guerrerro lives up to what you would expect these legends would be able to accomplish. That being said, the main two hours or so of the second disc are okay, but there are three exclusive matches on the Blu-ray that make up for some of the slower efforts, including a tag match with Sting and Steamboat against Rude and Austin that warrants the extra few dollars for the nicer format. Then again, if you’re a fan and you have the means, it would be silly not to get this one on Blu-ray. (Andrew Parker)