[A review written in the Harry Knowles style - in which the reviewer goes on and on about his personal preconceptions and state of mind and environmental conditions of moviegoing before getting to the actual review - as opposed to, frinstance, the Harlan Ellison style, in which the reviewer goes on and on about the history of movie making or storytelling before getting to the movie review.]
Today was shaping up to be a good day. Life has been pretty stressful and exhausting lately, but I'd lined up for today, a Sunday, not only two potentially devastatingly, mind-blowingly great movies, but also the season premiere of X-Files. Some people watch movies or TV all day every day, but not me. I hadn't planned this much movie watching in one day since, oh, 1986, when I was looking for my first job as a art person. So this was pretty special. The two movies were Princess Mononoke and Being John Malkovich, either of which I had hoped to see a week ago on my birthday, and both of which were supposed to be released that day. Turned out that both WERE in fact released that day, but in, well, New York and Minneapolis and San Francisco and other places I happened not to be. So we saw The Straight Story instead. This is a [massive digression, as per Harry Knowles style] new movie by David Lynch, the director known for turning over the shiny paving stones of middle class suburbia to see the crawling, creeping, monstrous things underneath. But here, in a movie he'd made for ABC/Disney [the biggest laugh was when one credit card read, "WALT DISNEY PRODUCTIONS PRESENTS" and the next credit read, "A FILM BY DAVID LYNCH"], he tells a nice sweet, pleasant, thoroughly wholesome story which all of my friends found completely boring.
Back to today. Seeing those two movies, which I desperately wanted to see, plus X-Files would take a lot of planning. You see, the films were playing at a few select places inconveniently located around the San Francisco Bay Area (where I live), so I had to leave the apartment at noon, drive half an hour to get to San Jose early enough to get tickets for the 1:15 Mononoke (which had been sold out when I went the night before) and when that was over drive half an hour in the opposite direction back to Palo Alto for Malkovich, and I had to see it in Palo Alto to use my free Landmark Theatre passes, which I'd gotten for answering a [so, what do you think of the Harry Knowles style of movie reviews?] weekly quiz, the question entailing being able to identify a movie based on a single paragraph from a review, and I guessed In the Company of Men, which happened to be right - and so I had to get to Palo Alto for the 4:45 of Malkovich and then leave from there and stop at work to check my email and then stop and get popcorn and chips and then stop at Mr. Chau's for vegetable delight and lemon chicken and then stop at home to check my email there and then stop and get gas and then book on over to Saratoga with the popcorn and chips and full gas tank and be at my friend's for X-Files at 9. Whew. I felt like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, but there was no pasta boiling involved and, hopefully, I wouldn't get arrested at the end.
So, uh, what did you think of Being John Malkovich?
I'd heard so many people say good things about this movie, but most of them were along the lines of: "Well, it's really weird. It's about being inside John Malkovich's brain for a while, but, well, the rest of it, well, you know, it's sort of, hard to... You just have to see it."
First off, let me tell you that Being John Malkovich is my favorite movie I've seen all year. It's the most creative, and certainly most bizarre, science fiction movie to come out this year - a year of some creative and spectacular s.f. films. I think about history and especially movie history a lot [now we're veering into Harlan Ellison style]. The 90's, as I've written before, have been a virtual cinematic wasteland. The bigger the budget, the worst the script. I'm just too smart for killer dinosaurs and freakin' asteroids (and so are you). The whole decade (with notable exceptions like Pi and Gattaca) has been a filthy, stinking dungpile of cookie-cutter, bottom-line-driven claptrap. Pretty but pretty shallow crap like Fifth Element. 1999 seemed to save the whole decade - and maybe mark itself as the best year for SF movies ever. Early this year I had high expectations, but I was surprised by the losers (the hyper-hyped Blair Witch, the mildly disappointing Star Wars, the fetid trashheap Wild Wild West) and stunned by the winners (The Matrix, eXistenZ, Iron Giant, Sixth Sense, Mystery Men) which seemed to come out of nowhere - and certainly not out of the mind of some corporate red-stamping bottom-line watcher whose necktie is cutting off circulation to his brain, and who knows how to count fannies in auditoriums but not beats of the human heart. The best movies of the year have been made by individuals, not committees, and were all a little quirky, a little odd.
Of these, Malkovich is by far the quirkiest and oddest and that's why it's my favorite.
Let me, without giving away too much, tell you a little bit about what happens in this film. John Cusack plays an unhappy, unsuccessful puppeteer. He lives with his wife, a frumped-down Cameron Diaz, and a menagerie of animals, including a parakeet who wakes Cusack up when he's sleeping and tells him to shut up when he's talking, and a chimpanzee with an ulcer resulting from childhood psychological trauma. Since his puppeteering isn't going anywhere, Cusack finds work as a file clerk (a job qualification was having nimble fingers). He works on the 7 1/2 floor of his office building - a floor which, it turns out, has a really low ceiling (see above). To access it, you need to stop the elevator at the critical moment and use a crowbar to pry open the doors - all while the elevator's alarm sounds.
While working in a file room one day, Cusack finds a strange little door which leads to a dark, mysterious passageway. Into the rabbithole he goes, the door slams behind him, and suddenly he finds himself experiencing everything John Malkovich is experiencing - eating toast, drinking juice - to amazing sound effects of crunching and gurgling - all from John Malkovich's point of view. Fifteen minutes later, he finds himself forcibly ejected from Malkovich's head, falling through the sky and landing in a ditch next to the New Jersey Turnpike.
Cusack is amazed by his discovery, and troubled by the metaphysical implications. Other characters have different takes. Cusack's temptress co-worker, slinkily played by Catherine Keener, wants to market trips into Malkovich's head like an amusement park ride - only 200 bucks a pop. Cusack's wife finds that a trip makes her question her gender. Cusack's boss thinks it's the key to immortality. And not one of them really gives a damn what John Malkovich thinks of all these strangers parading through his head, 15 minutes at a time.
I'd love to go on and on about the strange and wonderful things in this movie - like what happens when Malkovich enters his own head or the flashback scene with subtitled chimp talk - but that would spoil the fun. You really need to experience it for yourself, and not let too many people tell you about it. Every scene in this movie is a gem, and the film is full of big belly laughs. The acting is the anchor to reality, even as events become more and more bizarre. The script couldn't be better.
If you like movies stamped out of cookie cutters, this ain't for you. No, no, you get Adam Sandler. But - If you like something different, something hilarious and amazing, this is. It certainly was for me.
Overall: 10/10 (This is the only SF movie so far this year I've given this high a score.)
So, in short, Being John Malkovich was a real treat, my favorite movie of the year. Princess Mononoke was also good, but a little confusing, and the X-Files was, well, disappointingly uninformative. Oh well, still a pretty darn good day.
Agree or disagree about the Malkovich review? Let me know.
From Laurie Shelton:
I agree with your review. I happened upon it at the library, and my husband was bored with it, but I thought it was just a funny take on many quasi metaphysical issues. Casting was perfect! John Malkovich is that quintessential - how did he get to be so big? What is it about that thin mouth and that deep voice?
I loved it! When I put 'review of On Being Malkovich' in, I had no idea I would get this.
I also enjoyed your review style. Happy Birthday - whenever it was!
[My birthday was Oct. 29 - Thanks, Laurie! FW]
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