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Being John Malkovich
Your January Unrandom Movie Club Results Are In!

Tagline: Ever wanted to be someone else? Now you can.

Pizza: Valley Pizzaland


7 1/2

BEING JOHN MALKOVICH is yet another in a spate of tired movies about a puppeteer with a chimp-owning wife who accidentally stumbles on a door on floor 7 1/2 of the Merton-Flemmer Building that houses a portal that catapults you inside actor John Malkovich's head only to spit you out 15 minutes later near an on-ramp of the Jersey Turnpike. I mean, come on, can't Hollywood come up with something original?


Hip and trippy as a Fellini film yet somehow as grounded as a Hollywood film, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH is a fun movie that should not be missed, and that's due in large part to its author, Charlie Kaufman. Charlie began his career as a staff writer for the TV show GET A LIFE, a show that was as much of a dreamlike pastiche as a living room sit-com. It often turned on a dime into anywhere it wanted to, and it was insanely funny the whole time. So it makes absolute sense that Charlie wrote this movie.

It's odd that Charlie and I don't know each other. We grew up 19 minutes away from one another. We were in the same class at NYU film school. We both moved to L.A. in 1991. But somehow, he was working on GET A LIFE while I was working on getting a life. But am I jealous? No sir. Because Charlie's (I can call him by his first name because of our many imaginary interactions) writing is nothing short of brilliant.

Craig (John Cusack) and his marionettes
BJM begins with an overture (we actually hear the orchestra tuning up and see the curtains part on the stage). But what we are about to see is not a human performance but one involving marionettes, and pulling the strings is out of work puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack, does anyone hate him...for any reason?). Though there is applause on his soundtrack, it's clear Craig is unhappy performing his artistry in his sad basement. We know he's less than thrilled because of the somber and dark show he puts on, which we later learn is called "Craig's dance of despair and disillusionment." We also know by the way his unkempt self swigs his bottle of Miller. And doesn't that marionette look like him?

Craig likes puppeteering because, as he confides to Elijah the chimp, "...perhaps the idea of becoming someone else for a little awhile. Being inside another skin. Thinking differently. Moving differently. Feeling differently." Well, be careful what you wish for, puppetboy.

Craig is indeed a tortured artist, and worse, a trapped man, living with wife Lotte (a nearly unrecognizable, on purpose, Cameron Diaz). Lotte keeps a small menagerie in their apartment, and also wants a baby. But Craig doesn't seem to be interested in that, or anything.


Forced to take a job due to financial hardships (like I said...puppeteer), he answers an ad to be a filer at a place called LesterCorp, located on the 7 1/2 (or is it 7th 1/2? Or 7 1/2th?) floor of the Merton-Flemmer Building in NYC. And this is just one reason why the movie works so well. Because the 7 1/2 floor, or any oddball occurrence (and there seem to be thousands) is never questioned. Not just by us, mind you, but by the characters. Using a crowbar to pry the elevator doors open between floors 7 and 8 is just something he raises an eyebrow at. It's almost as if he's seen a woman walking a turtle on a leash; it's odd, but not impossible (for the record, I've witnessed that). Yet it is impossible, and because he (and everyone in the movie) is cozy with these absurdities, then so are we. And things just get more wacky as we go on, as you know if you've seen the movie, or have surmised by reading the first line of this write-up.

Remember I said Craig wasn't interested in anything? Well, that changes when he meets Maxine (Catherine Keener, in her breakout role), who also works on the 7 1/2 floor. Craig's world begins to percolate. Sure, feisty and overly alive Maxine (the polar opposite of Craig) is a challenge, but here's his chance to escape, even if it means through a small door and a muddy flume ride into John Malkovich's being. I suppose I should mention, in case you didn't know, that John Malkovich plays himself.

But even the serious side of the movie gets an extreme workout when it turns out Maxine is in love with Lotte, but only when she's inside Malkovich. This leaves Craig out in the cold (not to mention any hope of a 3-way). Meanwhile, Maxine and Craig are exploiting John by selling the twisted Warholian prophecy of 15 minute timeshares inside Malkovich's head. When it's over, you simply fall in a ditch near the Jersey Turnpike. A little research reveals that the Merton-Flemmer Building is maybe 700 feet from the Hudson River, not far from another famous conduit, the Lincoln Tunnel.


Believe me when I tell you, I'm only scratching the surface here. There are tons of other things going on in this deceptively complex movie, like a puppeteer puppeteering a man who is, by trade, someone who acts the part of someone else (BTW, Malkovich gives a howling performance). And to go one step further, when Malkovich himself becomes a puppeteer, holding a marionette that's operating another marionette, well, then we're walking on Droste effect territory, a concept that always thrills me (did you not see ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES?).

But at the heart of the movie, underneath all the meta stuff, lies a story of a man who feels trapped in a marriage, trapped in an underappreciated artform that others ignore or even get violent about (think ten steps below mime), trapped in a new job with TWILIGHT ZONE quirkiness, and therefore - wholesale-ly trapped in the city of Claustrophobia. I suppose those low ceilings and dark muddy tunnels are the visual representations of his claustrophobic life. And the movie itself is 95% interiors, which perhaps some of you philosophy majors can discuss amongst yourselves.

My good friend Charlie took a real story, one we've seen in real life as well as movies, and gave it a push, creating a genre- and mind-bending comedy out of a pedestrian premise. I don't know why people call it dark. It ain't. It's just clever and funny. BJM is everything a Terry Gilliam movie is supposed to be.

I know a couple of people associated with this movie, including the gal who championed it when no one in town would touch it. That's sort of understandable, as BEING JOHN MALKOVICH is certainly an unpitchable movie, one that someone must read to really get, and even then it's no slam-dunk. But rock video director Spike Jonze (let's not discount his stupendous work here, especially as a first feature!) and my buddy Chucky went off to meet with Malkovich and snared him. Good for them, and double-good for Malkovich who took a chance on an unknown feature director and writer. Not to mention that if this thing tanked, or at very least, didn't go as planned, Malkovich may have been egg-scraping his face for years. But he climbed aboard, and once he did, others followed.

Dr. Lester (Orson Bean)
Also in the cast of quirkiaries, the always wonderful Orson Bean playing Dr. Lester, Craig's boss who is a 24-hour horny 103 year old, and not shy in his descriptions of sex acts. Mary Kay Place is his secretary (corporate liaison, actually) Floris, who mishears everything said, as well as having Dr. Lester convinced he has a speech impediment.

A movie like this could easily ride off the rails, but every time it feels like it's got nowhere to go, it makes an acute left. There's no way in the world anyone can guess what'll happen next in BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. This movie is so full of joy I think I may have shed a tear. It's also chockablock with surprises, like say, Malkovich not being the only actor who plays himself...and makes fun of himself. Even the dialogue is snappy and dry, like Craig's, "Nobody's looking for a puppeteer in today's wintry economic climate." And the orientation film about the history of the fictional Merton-Flemmer Building's 7 1/2 floor is a work unto itself. And taking Elijah to a chimp shrink, well, that yields a payoff scene that is my favorite funny moment in the movie.

Chucky-baby went on to pave some other metaphysical roads with ADAPTATION. (which features Malkovich shooting BEING JOHN MALKOVICH), a movie so good that I like it even though Nic Cage is in it, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, and SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, which I've yet to see (I have friends who adore it and others who abhor it). They say in writing that there are only five stories to be told, and they're wrong. There are five and a half. Thanks to my good friend, The Kauf.


"I'll never forget the first time I saw STAR WARS." That's the line a lot of people say, including Pixar founder John Lasseter. When he tells us this, it's a joyful moment. Here's a guy who took that inspiration and helped change the movie world.

In 1975, STAR WARS begat Industrial Light & Magic. It's that simple. There was no way to do the effects George Lucas wanted without creating new methods. So he brought in effects guy John Dykstra, who brought in others, and these mad scientists worked in their lab in Van Nuys. They bought old equipment...for cheap, and went to work inventing.

This documentary, which we only got to see a little of (the pizza got here really fast!), is lean and mean. Narrated by Tom Cruise, it goes behind the scenes, not just showing you some cool shots, but also telling you the history from the voices of those who were there; besides obvious rock stars like Lucas and Spielberg, we hear from effects supervisor (and original EQUINOX director!) Dennis Muren and visual effects D.P. for STAR WARS Richard Edlund, who said, "We would paint ourselves into a corner and have to invent a way out of it."


Good thing they did. They went on to do RAIDERS, ROGER RABBIT, BACK TO THE FUTURE, JURASSIC PARK, MEN IN BLACK, JUMANJI, AVATAR, IRON MAN, you name it. Hell, they somehow even got their fingers in THE LOVE GURU, but I'd imagine they don't exactly trumpet that on their reel.

Anyway, see this doc, if you can. It's wonderful.

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