Tag Archives: Spike Jonze

225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

CHARLIE KAUFMAN: I’ve written myself into my screenplay.

DONALD KAUFMAN: That’s kind of weird, huh?

Adaptation.

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Chris Cooper, Brian Cox

PLOT: Screenwriter , fresh off the hit Being John Malkovich, is contractually and mentally trapped as he is forced to plow his way through an impossible project: “writing a movie about flowers.” Things go from bleak to bizarre as he finds himself competing with his endearingly oblivious twin brother, Donald, who also aspires to be a screenwriter. Charlie slips further and further past the deadline, until things come to a head in the film’s swampy denouement where he comes face-to-face with both the writer of and titular character from “The Orchid Thief,” the book he is adapting for the screen.

Still from Adaptation. (2002)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay for Adaptation. was on Charlie Kaufman’s to-do list since the late ’90s. Tasked with adapting Susan Orlean’s novel-length essay “The Orchid Thief” and suffering the same problems as his doppelganger, he kept his progress secret from everyone other than Spike Jonze until 2000, when the movie was green-lit for production.
  • Screenwriting guru Robert McKee and his seminars are real. He personally suggested Brian Cox play him in the movie.
  • Adaptation. handily recouped the producers’ investment, with a return of $32.8 million worldwide on a $19 million outlay.
  • Nominated for four Oscars: best actor for Cage, supporting actor for Cooper, supporting actress for Streep, and adapted screenplay for Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Cooper was the only winner.
  • Though “Donald” Kaufman’s serial killer script The 3 was never shot, the idea may have inspired two subsequent movies, 2003’s Identity and 2006’s Thr3e.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Returning from a misfired date, Charlie finds his twin brother already back home from a writer’s seminar, brimming over with newly adopted wisdom. As Charlie stands in front of his hallway mirror, Donald’s face is captured in the reflection as he expounds upon his own screenplay’s “image system” involving broken mirrors. Charlie’s expression goes from dour to disbelieving at this inanity, and the viewer sees the movie mock both itself and screenplay tricks. A further twist is added by the fact that the blurry reflection in the mirror is the face of the actual Charlie Kaufman talking to Nicolas Cage.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Film-within-a-film-within-a-screenplay-within-a-screenplay ; Ouroboros; orchid-snorting

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: For all its unconventionality, Adaptation is amazingly self-deprecating. Spoilers unravel in opening scenes and are tossed aside, coastal city elites are presented as real people with the petty little problems real people have, and Nicolas Cage gains a bit of weight and loses a bit of hair to provide the compelling double performance as the Kaufman brothers. Events seem scattershot, only to have their purposes later clarified as the tightly structured flow keeps the viewer jumping from moment to moment, always questioning which parts of this convoluted tale are actually true.

COMMENTS: Between its thorough description of the protagonist Continue reading 225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

CAPSULE: HER (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: Still wounded by his divorce, professional letter writer Theodore Twombly retreats from human relationships into a lonely life of videogames, gossip websites, and anonymous phone sex. However, his world changes after he upgrades to “the first artificially intelligent operating system,” a sentient program named Samantha that he initially treats with suspicion but soon accepts as a confidant, then a lover. When Twombly and Samantha becomes more intimate, though, her insatiable curiosity about the world strains their bond and threatens to recreate the heartbreak that Twombly experienced once before.

Still from Her (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Twombly and Samantha’s pairing is weird, Jonze’s story glosses over the odder aspects of the couple to concentrate on the universal qualities of the affair. The early introduction of phone sex normalizes the sensuous but purely vocal encounter between man and program that begins their romance, and the casual acceptance of their relationship by others further overlooks uncomfortable questions that another film might dwell upon. Instead, Jonze uses the scenario to fancifully illustrate the needs, passions, and pains felt by anyone who falls in love, even a woman who exists within a digital cloud.

COMMENTS: One of Her’s most endearing moments occurs after Twombly and Samantha’s first sexual encounter, when he awkwardly tells his OS that he isn’t interested in a serious relationship. It’s strange to see a morning after scene play out between a man and his computer, and yet that strangeness is absent from the dialogue as Johannson responds with the same charming annoyance and veiled attraction she’d provide in any romantic comedy. On the surface Samantha is defined by her nonphysical nature, but the warmth of Johannson’s performance shows the character’s emotions are not constrained by the lack of a body, that she feels with as much range and depth as any person. Rather than asking if computer programs could ever feel love, as other sci-fi films have, love is not merely possible but inevitable for Samantha. In Her, love is a fundamental part of intelligent life, and so anyone worthy of being called alive, whether human or artificial, naturally must be able to love.

At the same time, Her envisions an emotionally barren future where media technology isolates people from each other, eroding the personal connections they need to thrive. Twombly embodies that isolation as he shuffles from work to home with his eyes glued to one high-tech device or another, engaging others in only the most superficial ways. However, Phoenix’s awkward, self-enclosing performance also suggests someone not just glued to technology but also afraid of emotions, even as his sensitive letters hint at a deeply empathetic soul. Like Samantha, Twombly has a natural ability to love, but unlike his newborn OS he is burdened by past romantic failures and the fear of seeing them repeated, which discourages him from pursuing love at all. That fear pushes Twombly into a stupefying routine of media consumption that keeps other people, and the emotional risks attached to them, safely at bay. Whereas Samantha’s urge to love gives her life, Twombly’s reluctance to love leads him to numbly, thoughtlessly live out his days in front of machines, depriving him of a real life.

Given Twombly’s attachment to machines, it’s fitting that the person who finally reaches him is herself part of a machine. The chemistry between the characters is palpable despite Samantha’s invisibility, not solely because of Johannson’s strong voice work but also because of Phoenix’s total commitment to the conceit. In one scene Twombly shuts his eyes and lets Samantha guide him through a busy carnival, and as he follows her voice he moves so eagerly and joyfully that she could be leading him by the hand. Conversely, when Samantha disappears at various points in the film, Twombly’s solitude exceeds that of a man simply standing by himself. In Phoenix’s face we see a wordless grief through which Samantha’s absence is apparent, and through that sense of absence the invisible character takes shape.

Twombly is shaped by the relationship too as he ends his solitude and begins to let other people connect with him again. By the end, Twombly has realized that the ability to form those connections is itself a marvelous thing, regardless of whether or not they end in heartbreak. Samantha herself is not a perfect mate and Twombly’s relationship with her never seems sustainable, but the film treasures their bond no matter how absurd and fleeting it may be. In a world where people can rely on technology to smooth out the complications in their lives, Her argues that something as complicated and ephemeral as love has a place in our lives too, that love is in fact still what makes life worth living.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With Jonze playing down his trademark absurdist humour and opting for a melancholy tone, we are left with a rather sad cautionary tale.”–Simon Weaving, Screenwize (contemporaneous)

64. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999)

“I don’t think my characters are a joke. I take them seriously. And no matter how outlandish or weird their situation, their situation is real and a little tragic. I think that’s what gives people something to hang onto as they watch the film. We had to find a way to make everything play on a very naturalistic level, so it didn’t just turn into wackiness.”–Charlie Kaufman on Being John Malkovich (Salon interview)

“I’m sure Being John Malkovich would be regarded as a work of genius on whatever planet it was written.”–possibly apocryphal comment from a movie studio rejection letter

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Spike Jonze

FEATURING: , Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich

PLOT: Craig Schwartz is an unemployed puppeteer who performs a marionette version of “Abelard and Heloise” on street corners for passersby.  His wife Lotte convinces him to get a job, and he winds up working as a file clerk on floor seven and a half of a Manhattan office building, where he falls for sultry and scheming coworker Maxine.  When he discovers a portal hidden behind a file cabinet that leads into the mind of John Malkovich, Maxine devises a plan to sell tickets to “be” the title actor, but things become extremely complicated when a confused love quadrangle develops between Craig, his wife, Maxine, and Malkovich…

Still from Being John Malkovich (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • The feature film debut for both director Spike Jonze and sreenwriter Charlie Kaufman (who would work together again on Adaptation).
  • In Being John Malkovich John Cusak re-enacts the story of Abelard and Heloise with puppets; the title Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is taken from Alexander Pope’s poem on the same subject, “Eloisa to Abelard.”
  • John Malkovich reportedly liked the script, but didn’t want to star in it and requested the filmmakers cast another actor as the celebrity who has a portal into his head; eventually he relented and agreed to appear in the film.
  • The film was nominated for three Oscars: Keener for Best Supporting Actress, Jonze for Best Director and Kaufman for Best Original Screenplay.  As is usually the case with uncomfortably weird films, it won nothing.
  • The film was originally produced by PolyGram, who were unhappy with the dailies they were getting from Jonze and threatened to shut production down; however, before they could make good on the threat the company was bought out by Universal, and Jonze was able to complete the movie in the ensuing confusion.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The recursive (and hilariously illogical) result of John Malkovich daring to enter the portal that leads inside John Malkovich’s head.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make a movie about a secret portal that allows anyone who crawls through it to see the world through actor John Malkovich’s eyes for fifteen minutes before being spat out on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike and not end up with a weird result.  The inhabitants of Being John Malkovich, like the denizens of a dream, don’t recognize the secret portals leading into others minds, the half-floor work spaces designed for little people, and the chimps with elaborate back stories as being at all unusual. Their matter-of-fact attitudes only throw the absurdity into stark relief.


Original trailer for Being John Malkovich

COMMENTS: Synecdoche, New York may be Charlie Kaufman‘s weirdest script, Eternal Continue reading 64. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999)

SATURDAY SHORT: WE WERE ONCE A FAIRYTALE (2009)

Leave it to Spike Jonze to direct a seriously odd short starring Kanye West with some cameos from musician Fonzworth Bentley and skateboarder Mike Carroll.  What starts out as simply a story of Kanye in a drunken stupor, ends in an unpredictable, surreal climax that is trademark Spike Jonze.

CONTENT WARNING: this short contains some strong language, and a scene with mild sexual content.

CAPSULE: WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (2009)

DIRECTED BYSpike Jonze

FEATURING: Max Records, voices of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O’Hara

PLOT: A troubled, rambunctious boy travels to a land where wild beasts anoint him their king, but discovers that socialization is a struggle even in his imagination.

STill from Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Jonze slips a couple of odd visions into this ersatz kiddie fare; watch for the giant dog on the horizon, the friendly stoning of a few owls in flight, and a surprising limb-rending scene. The director fills the frame with scattered cuddly monsters of childhood psychology, but there’s not enough of the frantically irrational here to justify a weird rating.

COMMENTS:  It’s been only a few weeks since Where the Wild Things Are‘s release, and the movie already comes with its own critical cliche: this isn’t a children’s movie, it’s a movie about childhood. Like most cliches, there’s truth in the observation, and I have empirical evidence to back it up: I saw the film in the company of a 9 and an 11 year old, and they found it boring. As a boy, I would have found it boring too; there’s not much narrative thrust to the film, and its conflicts are complicated and interpersonal. To a kid, the tale itself is a mundane series of playground antics played out in an exotic setting—Max and his monster pals build a fort, engage in a dirt clod war, and favoritism and hurt feelings take over until someone decides to take their ball and go home—not a magical adventure they can get lost in. They’ll take some delight in beasts themselves, who are attractive and tactile with surprisingly expressive CGI faces: Muppets from the id. But the complex childhood psychology, while fascinating to nostalgic adults, will go right over their heads, the omnipresent womb imagery won’t make a dent in their little psyches, and the melancholy moral about accepting one’s limitations will be hard to absorb.

Each of the wild things Max encounters in his flight of fantasy represents some childhood preoccupation of his, and although it’s easy to see connections between the individual beasties and his real life, the symbolism is complex and mixed-up, just the way a real child’s dreams would be. There isn’t a simple one-to-one correspondence between each beast and a real life character.  Carol, who’s creative (and, like our hero, intensely destructive whenever he feels his creativity is being impinged upon), is Max’s main alter ego, but Carol also seems to represent Max’s absent father. KW, who is drifting away from the family unit to make new friends of her own, is simultaneously Max’s teenage sister and his mom, who has a new boyfriend. Other wild things represent various facets of childhood experience—there’s a goatlike being who complains he’s constantly being ignored, and the cynical horned woman who champions the defeatist voice inside us all. Getting along with these competing aspects of himself proves as difficult to Max as getting along with playmates and family in the real world. It ends as a sort of Jungian tragedy, as Max fails to integrate and harmonize the competing aspects of himself. The closest thing to an epiphany Max achieves is his disillusionment when he abdicates, admitting he’s been lying to these beasts he sought to rule. He’s not a king, or even a great explorer: “I’m just Max.” “Well, that’s not very much, is it?” shoots back his disappointed monster alter-ego, Carol, who longed for a monarch to bring order to their disintegrating fantasyland. Max has no answer to this self-riposte. His only solace is that he has a lifetime left to devise a comeback.

The grapevine says that Warner Brothers pressured Jonze to do some serious reshooting after his initial, even darker cut had tykes in tears at test screenings. It will be interesting to see if the inevitable director’s cut delivers something even more idiosyncratic and uncompromising, maybe even a tad weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Max’s dilemma and emotions are distilled to their essence, so the way his real-life suffering informs his dreamscapes becomes unmistakable… more than just a visual feast; it’s a blissful evocation of imagining as a process of spiritual maturation.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine

CAPSULE: ADAPTATION (2002)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Spike Jonze

FEATURING: , , Chris Columbus

PLOTAdaptation tells two stories: in one, a “New Yorker” journalist (Meryl Streep) becomes obsessed with the subject of her nonfiction book, a trashy but passionate collector of orchids (Chris Cooper); in the other, a depressed screenwriter (Nicolas Cage) struggles to adapt her book “The Orchid Thief” into a movie, while fending off his chipper and vapid twin brother (also played by Cage), himself an ersatz screenwriter.

adaptation

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEAdaptation is a metamovie, the filmed equivalent of metafiction (a literary style where the real subject of the work is not the ostensible plot, but the process of creating of the work itself).  In Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) inserts a fictionalized version of himself into the script, writing and rewriting the story as the movie progresses.  Adaptation may appear unusual, and even weird to those who aren’t used to this kind of recursive style, but it’s a purely intellectual exercise about the creative process, and the mysteries presented in the movie have a purely logical explanation when considered in their literary context.

COMMENTSAdaptation sports perhaps the smartest script written in this young millennium, a story which twists and turns back upon itself with sly wit and playful intelligence.  (The screenplay was nominated by the Academy for “Best Adapted Screenplay”; maybe it would have won if it had been properly nominated in the “Best Original Screenplay” category).  In addition, the acting by the three principals—toothless and trashy Chris Cooper as the orchid thief, Meryl Streep as a jaded, intellectual journalist drained of passion, and Nick Cage as the twins, Charlie and Donald Kaufman—shows three veterans at the very peak of their games.   All three were nominated for Oscars, and Cooper won for “Best Supporting Actor.”   As good as Cooper was, it’s Cage’s magical performance as the writer paralyzed by artistic ambition and self-doubt, and also as his clueless doppelganger with a maddening Midas touch, that carries the film.  This is easily Cage’s best performance in an uneven career.

Despite the superlative script and performances, Adaptation falls just short of being an unqualified classic.  The problem is that the secondary plot—despite such welcome spectacles as Meryl Streep trying to imitate a dial tone while tripping balls—pales beside the more intriguing internal struggle of poor Charlie Kaufman.  When Streep and Cooper are on screen, we are always anxious to get back to Cage throwing barbs at himself.  Adaptation is geared towards a specialized audience—mainly writers, movie reviewers and other highly creative types—but will also appeal to fanatical film fans and industry insiders and would-be insiders who want to have a good wicked laugh at the cutthroat compromises required to bring a screenplay to life in Hollywood.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an occasionally maddening and sometimes brilliant motion picture that varies between being insightfully sharp and insufferably self-indulgent…  I can’t imagine Adaptation having much mainstream appeal, but, for those who look for something genuinely off-the-wall in a motion picture, this will unquestionably strike a nerve.”  -James Berardinelli, Reel Views