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review added: 5/8/00



Being John Malkovich
Special Edition - 1999 (2000) - Gramercy/Universal/USA Films (USA)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Being John Malkovich Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/A-

Specs and Features
113 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 48:43, at the start of chapter 16), Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, 4 TV spots, 2 video featurettes produced for film (7 1/2 Floor Orientation, American Arts & Culture Presents... John Horatio Malkovich, Dance of Despair and Disillusionment), 2 behind-the-scenes featurettes (An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering and An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Background Driving), a page with nothing on it, an interview with Spike Jonze, cast & crew bios, a photo gallery, animated film-themed menu screens with music (several soundtrack cuts, including Bjork's Amphibian), scene access (32 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0 Surround), subtitles: English, French & Spanish, Closed Captioned


Craig: "What happens when a man goes through his own portal?"

Maxine: "We'll see...!"

Being John Malkovich was, in my mind at least, the best, most interesting and original film of 1999. The film's story is simple, in principal. John Cusack plays Craig Schwartz, a down on his luck puppeteer. Craig struggles unsuccessfully to make a living at his chosen craft, until his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) suggests he get a real job. So Craig answers an employment ad that leads him to the Murton Flemmer building, and the 7 1/2 floor offices of LesterCorp. A brief and bizarre interview later, Craig's a newly-hired file clerk. And in his office, Craig finds a surprise... a hidden portal, that leads into the head of actor John Malkovich. It works like this - you simply crawl down a dark tunnel, and suddenly find yourself inside the head of Malkovich, experiencing his life for fifteen minutes... after which time you get dumped out on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. Simple right?

Craig shares his discovery with a woman he's met on the 7 1/2 floor, Maxine (played by Catherine Keener, in a performance that won her a Best Supporting Actress nomination). Craig is bored with his life, and he's hot for Maxine, so he's happy to go along when she suggests that they make a buck or two off the discovery. Together, they form JM, Inc. and they charge $200 a pop for people to experience the thrill that is Malkovich. But there are problems. First of all, when Lotte finds out and she tries the portal, she can't get enough of the experience. And she also falls for Maxine, who wants her back... but only when she's inside Malkovich. What's a jealous Craig to do? And what does John Malkovich have to say about all this? Plenty... and that's just scratching the surface of this bizarre and funny film.

It's really hard to believe that Being John Malkovich is actor-turned-director Spike Jonze's first film (you may know Spike better for his role as the hick American soldier in Three Kings). This is a really amazing piece of work, and it should be interesting to see what he follows it up with. The story by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is well written and completely original. The film features some great performances by Cusack, Keener and Cameron Diaz. I have to give Diaz credit - her appearance in this film is surprisingly good, and she was brave to take the role (take one look at her in this film and you'll understand what I mean). And naturally, John Malkovich steals the show. The answer to the question posed in the quote at the top of this review is worth plenty of laughs. And Malkovich's puppet show/dance, in which he flails around wildly, is worth the price of this disc alone.

So how is the DVD? Pretty cool - it definitely gets my early vote for the Most Interesting DVD of 2000. The anamorphic widescreen video is solid, with accurate (if very muted) colors, deep blacks and excellent shadow detail. This isn't reference quality, but it looks very good overall. The audio is about equal to the video - the Dolby Digital 5.1 track doesn't put your system to the test, given that this is a dialogue driven film, but it's plenty good. It created a good ambience and dialogue is clean and clear.

Now... let's talk extras. What you get on this disc seems like a lot, and I suppose it is. But it has got to be the most bizarre set of bonus materials to be included on DVD to date. To start with, you get the film's theatrical trailer and 4 of the most unusual TV spots I've ever seen for any film. You also get a pair of really great short videos, which were produced for use on camera during the film. The first is the orientation on the 7 1/2 floor that Craig is made to watch after he gets hired at LesterCorp ("at least there will be one place on God's green Earth where you and yer cursed kind can live in peace..."). The second short is the fake documentary on Malkovich which is seen late in the film, featuring his second career as a puppeteer (and a funny cameo by Brad Pitt). In addition, there are a pair of "behind-the-scenes" videos. One focuses on the art of puppeteering and the other is an interview with someone who was hired to drive her car back and forth in the background of the New Jersey Turnpike scenes. Are you scratching your head yet? How about this - you also get a page with nothing on it (literally) and an interview with director Spike Jonze where he... well, he gets sick and pukes on the side of the road. Rounding things out are a gallery of production photos and an unadvertised feature that can't quite be called an Easter egg - as you skip from menu to menu, you'll get to listen to 5 or 6 complete tracks from the film's soundtrack in the background, including the film version of Bjork's Amphibian. Just skip around to find them all, and then don't touch anything if you want to listen - the entire track will play.

I have only one complaint with this DVD, but it's a BIG one. Where's the commentary track? A film this unique and interesting absolutely screams for a director's track, but you won't find one here. I also would have loved to hear Malkovich talking about this film. I wonder what he thought when he first got this script, with his name on the cover? The lack of a commentary is really disappointing. But that, again, is my only real complaint.

Being John Malkovich is as off-beat a film as you will ever see, and see it you must. If you missed this one in theaters, you really owe it to yourself to catch it on disc. And while the DVD isn't the best you'll ever see, it's almost perfectly matched to the spirit of this film. Almost. In any case, it's absolutely a must-spin (and for serious film fans, a must-own as well).

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com




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