Actor, Writer, Producer and Director, Spike Jonze continues to be a prolific talent in the world of cinema. Above all, and for the purposes of this fan appreciation blog, he is a wonderfully accomplished Director of four feature films between 1999 and 2013, all of which I lovingly adore and provide my unique and minimal spoiler reviews below.
Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), Where the Wild Things Are (2009) and Her (2013) follow however Spike Jonze is also highly regarded and world famous as a Director of numerous short films, documentary short films and music videos for artists such as REM, Bjork, The Beastie Boys and The Chemical Brothers. Aside from his acting prowess, Spike is also a prolific writer who has written the screenplays for his last two films as well as the 2013 Jackass inspired hit "Bad Grandpa". He has also received numerous un-credited acting roles in the aforementioned Bad Grandpa as well as phenomenal worldwide hits "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "Moneyball" and he also starred in a credited role in the 1999 surprise hit "Three Kings".
"Craig Schwartz" (John Cusack) is depressed, down on his luck and seemingly stuck in both his life and his marriage to "Lotte Schwartz" (Cameron Diaz). Living in New York, Craig is surrounded and smothered by a dowdy dressed, unattractive and overbearing wife and a whole menagerie of family pets including a parrot, a ferret, an iguana and a monkey that has a professional "shrink!". As a result he retreats further and further into a world he feels more comfortable with and where he can control, dictate and enjoy a life that is seemingly passing him by via the medium of puppeteering. Despite the verbal and physical assaults he often has to endure for his art, life takes on new meaning for Craig when he performs but penniless and needing work to sustain the family home he takes a job as a lowly filing clerk at LesterCorp on the 7 and a half Floor of a city office block and events in the surreal and cramped confines of this half a floor of office space will change the course of his future forever. Quirky, socially inept and with an almost constant look of bafflement upon his face, Cusack is excellent as the awkward Schwartz who instantly falls in love with the sexually alluring but completely out of his social league "Maxine Lund" (Catherine Keener). Maxine also works on the 7 and a half Floor for "Dr Lester" (Orson Bean) a sprightly yet hearing impaired 105 year old who like his secretary, oh sorry "Executive Liasion" "Floris" (Mary Kay Place) has no problem whatsoever with expressing his inappropriate sexual desires! Craig has swapped one bizarre backdrop to his life for another however his surreal new office job has one further abstract detail in store for him, a portal into the mind of world renowned actor John Malkovich whereby for fifteen minutes the lucky occupants can observe his day to day activities before being catapulted from his mind and back into the real world via the New Jersey Turnpike! So to recap, we have a struggling and socially awkward puppeteer in a loveless marriage surrounded by umpteen animals and a monkey named Elijah dressed in a baby's nappy who falls in love with a beautiful, sexually open co-worker who refuses his every awkward advance. He now has to constantly and actively avoid both his new Boss and his Executive Liasion's totally inappropriate sexual advances and discussions only to find refuge in a portal into the mind of one of Hollywood's premier actors of our generation. Craig, his own sexual advances still rebuked by Maxine suggests they instead become "Partners" in the highly lucrative enterprise of selling 15 minutes into the mind of John Malkovich, however their ruse cannot last and soon enough a certain someone would rather have his mind back to himself! But there is an ever lengthening queue of takers for this surreal journey, and closing the portal simply isn't an option. Suffice to say, the hysterical and ultra bizarre madness has only just begun!
There is so much to admire in Being John Malkovich and credit is due in every direction, from regular Coen Brothers musical collaborator Carter Burwell and his eclectic musical score that joyously accompanies the film as it ranges from a vast number of orchestral pieces through to Bjork's "Amphibian" during the closing credits to Lance Acord's cinematography and Eric Zumbrunnen's excellent editing. In a film of such intricacies and attention to detail, KK Barrett also deserves immense credit for his unique production design as it brings both Kaufman's and Jonze's surreal vision to life so vividly. In front of the camera are a wealth of unique and stellar performances across the board, from John Cusack's awkward portrayal of a man completely uneasy with life and seemingly thwarted at every turn to Cameron Diaz's almost unrecognisable portrayal of his overbearing and confused wife. Catherine Keener garnered the first of her two Oscar nominations to date for her portrayal of the sexually alluring and ultra selfish Maxine and special mentions are rightly due for Orson Bean and Mary Kay Place for their respective roles as they both infuse a real surreal air to their other worldly and highly sexual characters completely at odds with the world yet utterly comfortable with it too. There are also a plethora of credited and un-credited cameos throughout the film as it continually twists a fictionalised narrative with real life Hollywood stars of the day such as Gary Sinise, Winona Ryder, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Dustin Hoffman as well as Director Jonze himself and fellow Director David Fincher. Last but by no means least is Charlie Sheen sending himself up in the vain of the film brilliantly as well as his hysterical "Hot, lesbian witches!" outburst!
But in a film that carries his name, John Malkovich plays up to the surreal screenplay that has somehow found it's way inside his mind absolutely wonderfully. To use a well worn cliche' Malkovich's performance is very definitely a "brave" one as he takes the absurdity of being surrounded on all sides by replicas of himself through to being directly under the control of another brilliantly and on repeated viewings it's striking that he never wavers or looks aghast at the absurdity of it all. He remains "in character", whatever character that may be at any given time and it's a true virtuoso performance that could so easily have descended into shtick, or with reverential nods to the camera or the audience. The film itself garnered three Oscar nominations in 2000, for Keener's supporting performance as the enticing and out of reach Maxine as well as nods to both Director Jonze for Best Director and for Kaufman's outstanding, ground breaking screenplay. The two would re-team on Jonze's next film and another wonderfully affecting and bizarre Kaufman screenplay would be twisted through Jonze's lens to perfection again.
Three years on from their first collaboration, Director Jonze and screenplay writer Kaufman joined forces again with Adaptation, a self reverential take ostensibly on the process of adapting a book for the cinema screen but through Kaufman's writing it's far more than that as his screenplay is bathed in self reverential nods and winks to himself, the Hollywood industry and the process itself of turning a successful book into a similarly successful and viable film. As the title of the film suggests it's also a reflective take on the process of adaptation itself, be it in the life of a plant, or in this film's case an orchid, or adapting to unforeseen changes in life and adapting to loss, loneliness or accepting and adapting to being somewhat different to the people we surround ourselves with. Adaptation is all this and so much more as with tongue often firmly in it's cheek it references back to Being John Malkovich (with many of the film's stars reprising their roles briefly on screen here) whilst following the trials and tribulations of a screenplay writer named "Charlie Kaufman" (Nicolas Cage) and his entirely fictitious twin brother "Donald Kaufman" (also Nicolas Cage) as Charlie tortures himself trying to adapt "The Orchid Thief" by "Susan Orlean" (Meryl Streep), her fascination and ultimately fictitious love affair with horticulturist "John Laroche" (Chris Cooper) as Susan strives to write about a man so at odds with the world but with a passion that is desperately missing in her own life as he ventures into the unknown seeking a rare "Ghost Orchid". In a somewhat surreal summation we have a story written by a screenplay writer about a screenplay writer of the same name, his carefree yet completely fictitious twin brother with whom he shares both his life and his troubles as he struggles to adapt a book written by a real life author played brilliantly by Meryl Streep as she struggles to adapt to changes in her own life whilst writing the book upon which the film will be ultimately based!
The film has a non-linear narrative which lends itself perfectly to the complicated story, so in essence we view Charlie Kaufman's present day anxieties as he tries desperately to adapt the book whilst also struggling with his own inner demons. Charlie is socially inept, awkward and full of self loathing at his chubby and balding outer exterior whilst inwardly he simply cannot write a coherent, intelligent and somewhat interesting screenplay. One of the film's real joys are the constant juxtapositions employed throughout and here Charlie is juxtaposed against his devil may care yet raw twin brother Donald. Although naive and formulaic in his thinking, Donald is perhaps what Charlie used to be, a free form and expressive writer, not the deeply depressed, socially awkward writer struggling desperately with writers block and a supreme lack of confidence. With the shifting of the time narrative Charlie is also starkly juxtaposed against the writer of the book that he's trying to adapt. Whereas Charlie is manic with ideas but ultimately nowhere near adapting a workable script we see Susan Orlean gracefully writing and indeed narrating a joyous if melancholic account of her search for the ultimate orchid thief but with further juxtapositions we also see a rather more reflective Susan who, with the book nearing it's completion cannot comprehend how her life as a writer has been transformed by the magnetic presence of the self proclaimed "smartest person I know". Her suburban life of tranquillity and writing for a living has been shaken up by a gap toothed roughneck who has shown her a life that before meeting him, she could barely believe existed at all.
Of the characters already introduced, Nicolas Cage is back on stellar form here as he portrays each of the twin Kaufman brothers. As has already been alluded to, Donald is in fact entirely fictitious however Cage still enthuses him with an outward brio of light contagious enthusiasm so at odds with his twin brother Charlie. His portrayal of the angry and frustrated actual screenwriter is pitch perfect with every look of shame, betrayal and self loathing eerily reminiscent and harkens back to his Oscar winning portrayal in the eponymous "Leaving Las Vegas" in 1995. Here seven years later he would be Oscar nominated again for his dual portrayal of the conflicted brothers, and rightly so. As we've come to expect, Meryl Streep is superb in her role of the original author Susan Orlean as her life changes almost beyond redemption but which also takes on real meaning as she tracks down and falls in love with John Larouche. Chris Cooper would ultimately win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his wonderful portrayal of the gruff, perma smoking, rough and ready Larouche, and he thoroughly deserved this recognition. There is far more to John Larouche than meets the eye. He may be an orchid thief but he's a conservationist, a horticulturist and despite appearances a well read man. However he defies the norms of life and follows a lifelong passion that through Cooper's tour de force portrayal is evident in every scene and continues to enthuse one of the film's many themes of juxtaposing a life well lived against a life that could, maybe should, be adapted.
The self reverential theme continues throughout the film and never more pertinently than Kaufman's inclusion of himself in the script and the inclusion of not one, but two narrations. This draws the ire of "Robert McKee" in yet another self reverential insight into the world of screen writing as McKee is a world renowned real life film writing expert and brilliantly brought to life in an expletive strewn cameo from Brian Cox. Further referenced cameos come from John Cusack, Catherine Keener and John Malkovich as they each reprise but more importantly send up their previous roles in Being John Malkovich and both Director Jonze and fellow Director David O Russell cameo briefly but more substantive roles fall to Tilda Swinton as "Valerie Thomas", a deadpan film executive trying to formalise a deal for the adapted book, Maggie Gyllenhaal as a make up artist on the original set of Being John Malkovich "Caroline Cunningham" and Ron Livingston provides a hilarious and awkward cameo as Charlie Kaufman's offensive and repugnant Agent "Marty Bowen". However, two further fuller and nuanced female characters inhabit Charlie's world to equally devastating effect with Judy Greer excelling as the ever smiling and thoughtful "Alice the Waitress" providing a perfect backdrop to Charlie's ever tangling mind of contradictions, but Cara Seymour is stunning in a hugely underrated role as Charlie's would be girlfriend "Amelia". Firm friends and would be lovers, if only Charlie could relax and write that damned screenplay!
As you may have guessed, this is yet another Kaufman/Jonze film that I adore and one that twelve years since it's initial release still remains fresh and vibrant whilst retaining its prominent themes of adapting, growing, changing and following a life's passion amongst many others. Adaptation is wholly self reverential but it's equally self critical too which as well as garnering Chris Cooper's first Oscar win also saw nominations for both Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep's wonderfully eccentric central performances and a second nomination for the the tortured screen writing genius that dreamt up the whole idea in the first place, Charlie Kaufman. So much for writer's block eh?
Based on the 1963 children's novel of the same name by Maurice Sendak, Spike Jonze and writing partner Dave Eggers adapted the novel into a screenplay and through the prism of Jonze's wonderful directorial eye produced a beautiful film for children and adults alike. This PG rated film explores many obvious themes of childhood exploration and escape, friendship, love and loss through to more simpler pleasures of a child simply wanting a friend to play with. Cleverly though, the film also touches on key metaphysical themes of our age, of global warming and of a dying sun that will ultimately change the planet we inhabit into something far different from the earth we take for granted but at it's heart is a wonderfully refreshing tale of a somewhat attention seeking but lonely little boy lost in his own thoughts and simply wanting someone, anyone to share his wild adventures. Where the Wild Things Are was originally thought to be too scary for it's intended younger audience however sense ultimately prevailed and Spike Jonze's unique idea for this childhood escapism film remained true to his vision, and what a stunning vision he created. I reiterate here that the film was ultimately rated a PG so the usual parental guidance sense of checking the multitude of trailers available may be advisable for a particularly younger audience however this truly is a film for children to immerse themselves in and escape into an ultimately fantastical and joyous world of bizarre adventure. My 11 year old son was originally sceptical that he would enjoy it but with some gentle parental guidance he was coerced into seeing it and gave it an "Ace film" recommendation at the end. As we watched this together amongst a hill of popcorn I continually stressed to my son that I wouldn't cry in front of him but that when I watched it back for the purposes of this review I probably would. And I did! A film that has a heart the size of a wild thing and a beautifully funny, irreverent and sweet natured story that will appeal to children and not so grown up adults alike? What further recommendation could you need?
Before I continue with a more in depth appraisal of the film itself, one of the real joys of this film is the beautiful music that accompanies it. Referring again to the trailers, these are often sound tracked by Arcade Fire and their brilliant song "Wake Up" which is both superb and highly prescient to the film it trails, however there are no further tracks from the Canadian Indie band in the film itself but their style and inspiration is certainly evident in the hauntingly beautiful melodies provided by Karen O and Tom Biller. Carter Burwell, a mainstay of so many Coen Brothers soundtracks is also listed alongside Karen O as the film's musical composer and he provides a vast array of gentle, melodic fiddle and guitar pieces that accompany the film but it's Karen O's inspired tracks that compliment so many of the film's stand out scenes, particularly the early snowball fight, the story composition between Mother and Son and especially later scenes as the newly formed group of adventurers howl at the early morning sun and when the "rumpus" is well and truly started! The rumpus centres on a small group of very large creatures or "wild things" that inhabit a beautiful island but before we delve further into these imposing yet friendly creatures full credit must be paid again to the Director and his vision for combining these animals in a live action film rather than a full blown animated feature. There are touches of CGI throughout however the majority is live action blended with brilliantly created animatronics and actors in costumes, all of whom appear lovingly created against a beautiful island backdrop which is framed brilliantly by returning Director of Photography Lance Acord. With a minimal cast of human characters, the wild things are voiced by a plethora of well known actors of our generation including James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Michael Berry, Lauren Ambrose and Chris Cooper but alongside these wild things is a 9 year old boy seeking adventure, escape and a fairytale story to call his own.
Max (Max Records) In only his second feature film Max provides a compelling performance for one so young and a completely believable portrayal of a young solitary boy who simply wants someone to play with and indulge in his fantastical games. This is evidenced immediately as he tries desperately to involve his older sister "Claire" (Pepita Emmerichs) in his games before a well intended and good natured snowball fight rapidly turns sour. Missing his Father's influence he turns to his stressed and overworked "Mom" (Catherine Keener) who returns to a Spike Jonze film on stellar form albeit in a cameo role, however it's clear that she's struggling to balance her work life together with being a single mother to two young children. She indulges Max's attempts to play in a beautiful scene that is captured brilliantly by Director Jonze with oblique camera angles down at Max, cramped under his Mother's work desk but playing with her feet and an angle from below and up at a smiling Mother. It's a beautifully simple scene and full of familial love, however Max needs constant reassurance and indulgence and frustrated by his Mother's diverted attention elsewhere he retreats into his wolf play costume. It's familiar, a comfort blanket if you will but with rising anger and frustration Max runs away from home and inadvertently into his own fantastical Kingdom on a remote island inhabited by "wild things" and finally into an adventure that he can control and with friends he can play with!
After securing the trust of his new found friends Max is soon anointed "King" and finds a kindred spirit in many of the wild things but especially "Carol" who before his arrival was ostensibly the leader of the group. Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) is the impulsive member of the group but has everyone's best interests at heart despite feeling alone and "by myself" but has a special affinity for "KW" (voiced by Lauren Ambrose) who is forever frustrated by life within the group and threatening to leave. Max soon recognises the affinity he has with both Carol and KW as they are all in their own way loners and after quickly establishing a rapport with Carol he sets about including KW back into the group. "Ira" (voiced by Forest Whitaker) and "Judith" (voiced by Catherine O'Hara) are the lovers of the group, with "Alexander" (voiced by Paul Dano) the timid and ignored member of the wild things, with "Douglas" (voiced by Chris Cooper) and "Bernard the Bull" (voiced by Michael Berry) the quiet yet intimidating wild thing and rounding off their disparate group. A King's job is seemingly never done on the island and Max weaves his own fantastical stories into the lives of the wild things whilst having the time of his short life living out his own wild childhood fantasies whilst also restoring order and fun back into the group "we forgot how to have fun". It's clearly evident that both Max and the wild things are awkward strangers even on their own fantastical island at times but Max has a "sadness shield that keeps out all the sadness" and he does, well almost! But Max has finally found someone and some "things" to play with and it's a truly joyous ride throughout.
Fresh from his Oscar nominated performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's magnificent "The Master", Joaquin Phoenix turns in yet another pitch perfect performance in a leading role here as "Theodore", a highly regarded love letter writer (Letter Writer 612) for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. He may regard his pieces as "just letters" however it's quickly and evidently established that Theodore knows the recipients of his letters very well indeed having written on behalf of the same people for many years. Casting aside the disconnected aspect of this practice (for human disconnection runs as a constant theme throughout the film) it's more evident that Theodore himself is disconnected from the world, ostensibly stuck in his semi futuristic cubicle dictating love letters that albeit heartfelt, are simply a daily task that leaves him somewhat unfulfilled. Theodore is clearly depressed and together with a feeling of being disconnected and distant from the world he is struggling to adapt to single life with an impending divorce on the horizon from his best friend and childhood sweetheart "Catherine" (Rooney Mara). Through intermittent flashbacks we discover a happy, contented and playful Theodore enjoying life and marriage but this is far from the present day picture painted of him. Alone and lonely in his sumptuous apartment overlooking the city, his distant stares of longing are evident constantly as he searches for meaning in his life as well as companionship and love. His small circle of friends include his obvious soul mate and long term platonic friend "Amy" (Amy Adams), her husband "Charles" (Matt Letscher) and work friends "Paul" (Chris Pratt) and "Lewman" (Luka Jones) but Theodore is desperately lonely, disconnected and desperate and with his head turned by the advertisements for the interactive Operating Systems, he purchases a new friend! With the impending divorce and only Amy for a real friend in which to confide, Theodore slips further and further away from the real world and into an interactive computer world with "Samantha" (voiced by Scarlett Johannsson) and despite not believing "I'm having this conversation with my computer!" he slowly falls in love with his computer Operating System.
In a film of such few main characters, two characters and performances stand out and as alluded to previously Joaquin Phoenix is magnificent yet again. The character actor of his generation, he just infuses every character he plays with such verve that he defies you to look away from the screen and dare to miss any part of his performance(s) and again here he takes a somewhat indifferent and exhausted character and injects him with such love and affection that we overlook his faults and frailties. Theodore is such a layered character, disconnected, indifferent, unhappy and feeling that life has almost passed him by and that he'll "never feel anything new" again, but he's also joyous, self deprecating, selfless and kind. Brilliantly written by Spike Jonze and a character magnificently realised (yet again) by Joaquin Phoenix. Similarly, Amy Adams continues to produce character performances that surprise and delight in equal measure as she follows her recent excellent performances in "American Hustle" and "The Master" with a nuanced portrayal of Amy here. Stifled by a selfish and self absorbed husband, she is clearly Theodore's soul mate and friend in need since becoming firm friends in college. They may not be romantically linked but they're almost mirror characters in a way and never more presciently than Amy's scathing, yet amusing outburst that love is "like a socially acceptable form of insanity". How would she feel then if she discovered that her best friend had fallen in love with his computer Operating System?
Her was lauded at the 2014 Oscars with three further nominations in addition to Spike Jonze's win for Best Original Screenplay. The film itself was nominated for Best Film of the Year and although Director of Photography Hoyte Van Hoytema was not individually recognised for his achievements it is to him that a large part of the credit must be paid for producing such a clean, clear, crisp and visually stunning near future. In league with Director Jonze they have both envisioned a near future akin to today's experience but with a heightened sense of the all pervasive technological advances in a cleaner, brighter world. The colour palette is bright, the visuals pin prick sharp and the film gains much from Van Hoytema's brilliantly captured skylines, sunsets, sunrises and wide angled cityscape shots. KK Barrett was also deservedly nominated for his production design which brilliantly complimented the visual ascetics of the near future vision of the Director and two further Oscar nominations were awarded for the film's wonderful musical score accompaniment. Firstly, Will Butler (of Arcade Fire fame) and Owen Pallett were nominated for their original music written directly for a film and their compositions of gentle string, piano and mellotron ballads are simply beautiful and the soundtrack is a pure joy and highly recommended. Secondly, "Moon Song" (written by Director Jonze and Karen O) appears twice in the film and was rightly nominated for Best Original Song and is a beautifully moving piece of music that also accompanies the film's closing credits.
Her is a highly original film in every sense, tackling highly prescient issues whilst shining a light on a disconnected future that is fast arriving in spades accompanied by a brilliant soundtrack and two stellar central performances. The film is often melancholic but please don't overlook either the joyous nature intermingled here or indeed the comedic twists provided by a horrendous blind date, a foul mouthed Alien (voiced by the Director) or Theodore's desperate use of an internet chat line. Just don't mention cats, ok?
Her was dedicated to James Gandolfini, Harris Savides, Maurice Sedak and Adam Yauch. Actors, writers, film makers but more importantly "friends" of Director Jonze, all of whom died during the making of the film.