Being John Malkovich (1999; directed by Spike Jonze)

I wish I could have seen this movie without knowing anything about it in advance. It was very entertaining, but I knew what was coming. I can't imagine how wonderful it would have been to see it cold. If you haven't see it, please don't read the rest of this review.

John Cusak plays Craig Schwartz, a puppeteer of such "artistic integrity" that he can't make any money (he seems to inhabit a world where many other puppeteers do make money). So, he gets a mindless office job. At this job, he discovers Maxine (Catherine Keener) who is sort of a modern Eve Arden, bitingly and hilariously dismissive of his immediate infatuation with her. When he stammers that he doesn't think he can go on, she gestures helpfully at the window. She obviously lives her life with the assumption that everybody she meets will lust after her, so of course they do.

And then, behind a filing cabinet, Craig discovers a small door, which leads into the brain of John Malkovich. He can stay there for fifteen minutes at a stretch, then he's ejected by the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. Craig and Maxine start a thriving business in Malkovich visits, then Maxine seduces Malkovich, and then Craig's wife Lotte inhabits Malkovich while he's having sex with Maxine. It gets weirder and weirder.

The movie is like "Run Lola Run" in that it's a wonderfully entertaining bit of fluff which some critics apparently feel obligated to praise as more profound than it is in order to justify how much they like it. Because it is so airy, a couple of the scenes feel forced and uncomfortable. Craig locks Lotte in a cage at one point so he can get to Malkovich before she does, and the scene is too heavy for a movie like this.

John Cusak is good, as always, but not at his best. The standout is Catherine Keener as Maxine, who is enormously likeable without ever being nice. Cusak's best scenes are with her, since he's in his element when he's reacting to another actor who has the upper hand. But the star, in every sense, is Malkovich himself, who is hilarious. Also terrific are Orson Bean as Craig's boss, and Mary Kay Place as his secretary.

The thing I liked best about it was that it finally provides a logical explanation of why celebrities suddenly start making weird decisions in mid-career. Why did Michael Jordan quit basketball to play baseball? Why does Jodie Foster take years off between movies, only to come back and remake "The King and I"? Why did Paul McCartney suddenly decide to write classical music? Well, somebody must have found their portals. It's the only explanation.

Also Recommended:

With John Cusak: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Thin Red Line, Grosse Point Blank

With Mary Kay Place: Citizen Ruth, Pecker

Best of 1999 / Best of the Decade

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The Green Mile (1999; directed by Frank Darabont)

A very good movie, well directed with an excellent cast, but it feels like a missed opportunity to me. I know it's not fair to judge a movie based on expectations, and I know it's not fair to judge a movie compared to the book it's based on, but some books are pretty much a blueprint for a good movie, you just have to follow what's there.

Certainly the cast is not at fault. I knew Tom Hanks was perfect for Paul Edgecomb, chief guard on death row at Cold Mountain prison, as soon as I saw him in Saving Private Ryan. And James Cromwell is a perfect choice for the Warden of the prison. In fact, the cast as a whole is very strong. The problem is really in the writing.

In this film, I think Darabont the director was somewhat let down by Darabont the screenwriter. The movie, even with its length of more than three hours, makes vague everything which is exactingly specific in the book. Facts gained by painstaking deduction in the book are obtained by mystical means in the movie. The Depression is mentioned in the movie, but it's an oppressive constant in the book (and the problem is that the story doesn't make sense except in that context). Paul Edgecomb's suffering, his punishment for what he did, is much stronger and more pointed in the book.

And no director could have made the botched electrocution of Delecroix as frightening as it is in the book, since it's the most disturbing thing I've ever read in a work of fiction.

Also, in isolating the story, the inmates and guards of E Block, from the outside world that Stephen King so carefully described, it makes John Coffey something perilously close to A Noble Savage. Since he is basically the only Black person in the movie, it's a bit disturbing how simple and mystical and selfless he is.

By Frank Darabont: Shawshank Redemption

With James Cromwell: L.A. Confidential

With David Morse: Contact

Best of 1999 / Best of the Decade

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