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Posts Tagged ‘John Cusack’

‘I can’t believe you’ve never seen Being John Malkovich,’ said Bloke From Next Desk.

‘I didn’t say I’d never seen it, I just said I haven’t seen it in a very long time. Fifteen years or so,’ I said.

‘No problem,’ he said (I’m not entirely sure he actually heard me). Within a couple of days he had brought in his copy of the film on DVD for me to watch. He is a thoughtful fellow, even if I find him rather too inclined to be generous towards Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

So, anyway, Spike Jonze’s 1999 film Being John Malkovich, which reached the UK a short while later, as tended to be standard in those days. I was living in the north of England at the time, many hours from the nearest art-house cinema, and so I could often only listen and sigh as London-based film critics extolled the praises of bold, brilliant, unusual films, that I knew I didn’t have a chance in hell of actually getting to see on the big screen. Ah, my wilderness years; however did I make it through? Being John Malkovich was just one especially notable example of this – there was a distinct buzz about this film, presumably because of both its startling premise and relentless originality.

John Cusack, that dependable and likeable screen presence, is cast rather against type as Craig, a struggling puppeteer who is married to obsessive animal-lover Lottie (Cameron Diaz, who is also cast very much against type). At Lottie’s request, Craig puts his unusual dexterity to use in a steadier job, working as a file clerk for the mysterious LesterCorp. Here he meets and is instantly attracted to the spiky Maxine (Catherine Keener) – she, quite sensibly, wants nothing to do with him.

All this changes when Craig discovers a mysterious blocked-up doorway in the file room. Going through it results in him being sucked down a passage and finding himself in the mind of the distinguished American actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich). For fifteen minutes he gets to experience life as a famous thespian, before he is disgorged onto the side of a road just outside New York.

Craig and Maxine decide to make the most of their discovery, by selling tickets to Malkovich’s mind for $200 each (as you would). Needless to say, there are dozens of interested parties, and it looks like the pair of them have a good thing going – until Lottie discovers that occupying Malkovich allows her to live out her fantasies of being a man, and engages in a relationship with Maxine from within the actor. Malkovich himself becomes suspicious of the odd events happening around him, and decides to find out just what is going on…

These days, you look at Being John Malkovich and think, ‘aha, a Charlie Kaufman movie’, for the writer has gone on to carve out a unique furrow as a purveyor of existential strangeness in wildly original and blackly funny films like Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Anomalisa. It’s almost enough to make you suspect he has some kind of superpower when it comes to persuading A-list actors to appear in very, very strange films.

So it is with this one. If you haven’t seen it, you may be wondering how on Earth the film goes about selling the notion of a metaphysical portal into someone’s mind to the audience – well, it is a ridiculous idea, but Kaufman and Jonze make it work by setting the whole film in a ridiculous world. No-one in the film behaves entirely normally – Craig is forever getting punched in the face for putting on age-inappropriate puppet shows in the street, the LesterCorp receptionist appears to have some kind of bizarre problem with her hearing, and the company itself is on the Seventh-and-a-Half floor of its building, with the result that everyone has to go around stooped over all the time. Given that all the characters accept these various elements without questioning them in the slightest, the existence of the Malkovich portal seems relatively less weird when it first appears.

Not that this makes the presence of John Malkovich himself in the film any less astounding – getting him to participate at all is possibly its greatest achievement. ‘If the film is bad, my name’s not just above the title, it is the title,’ Malkovich reportedly complained to Jonze, ‘and if it’s any good, everyone’s just going to assume I am this character.’ It’s not even as if this is a particularly flattering depiction of Malkovich – there’s a running joke about how he is universally acclaimed as a great thespian, but none of the other characters can actually name any of the films he’s appeared in. The fictional Malkovich takes himself very seriously, too – which presumably the real one doesn’t, or he wouldn’t be anywhere near it (apparently the studio head would have preferred Being Tom Cruise, as well).

If you’re the kind of person who likes to try and guess what the theme of a film is before watching it, you would be forgiven for assuming that this is essentially a comedy about our contemporary obsession with fame – everyone gets their fifteen minutes of Malkovich, after all. And while this is a consistently funny film, if you come to it with the right attitude at least, I don’t think that’s all there is to it. It may sound like a comedy, but it doesn’t behave like one – neither the performances nor the direction do anything to suggest that this is anything other than a straight drama, admittedly one with an outlandish element of fantasy, perhaps even of horror: after all, the plot resolves itself as ultimately being about a secret immortal who has hit upon a method of vastly extending his life by overpowering the free will of unsuspecting victims. Only the deadpan seriousness of the presentation makes it funny (an engaging paradox).

You can’t fault the film for its entertainment value, or endless inventiveness – as Roger Ebert said at the time, this is one of those incredibly rare films which is as surprising in its last thirty minutes as it is in its first. It is consistently funny, surprising, and… well, I’m not quite sure I’d call it thought-provoking, but it does delight in throwing strange ideas at the audience. The problem is that the price of this is that the film departs from any kind of recognisable dramatic structure – who’s the protagonist? Who’s the antagonist? Just which way is this going to go? Bereft of any of the usual signposts or markers, my memory of this movie after my initial VHS encounter was one of a collection of wildly disparate individual bits rather than a coherent narrative, and I’m not sure meeting it again on DVD has done much to change that impression. A very well-made, very funny film, but a total oddity on nearly every level.

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By some quirk of programming (or counterprogramming), UK cinemas are currently hosting two musical bio-pics pretty much guaranteed to leave the sympathetic viewer leaving the cinema making the same observations (and I should know, for I heard someone doing so this week): ‘what an enormous talent… awful how everyone around them exploited them so terribly… of course, all the drugs didn’t help…’ One of these films is Asif Kapadia’s Amy, which is pretty much a straight documentary, while going down the based-on-a-true-story route is Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy, about the life of Brian Wilson. love and mercy poster Younger readers can probably be forgiven for not being entirely sure who Brian Wilson is, I suppose, for all that they’ve probably grown up listening to his music, along with everyone else under the age of 50. Wilson is most celebrated as the creative force behind the Californian rock group the Beach Boys, overseeing the production of many of their most famous records: I Get Around, California Girls, Surfin’ USA, and many more. Alongside the story of ceaseless invention and boundless talent, however, is one of deep psychological problems and personal turmoil, with the effects of a troubled upbringing only exacerbated by a prodigious pharmaceutical intake and exploitation by some fairly unsavoury individuals.

Wow, it does sound like the Amy Winehouse story, doesn’t it? Perhaps it’s better to say that this is one of those tragedies which endlessly replays itself in new settings and with new characters. At least this particular iteration has (spoiler alert) a happier ending than many. The film focuses on two periods of Wilson’s life, and Pohlad has taken the fairly bold step of casting two different (and, it must be said, quite physically dissimilar) actors as Wilson. The younger Brian of the 1960s is portrayed by Paul Dano. This element of the film opens with Wilson retiring from touring with the rest of the band and going into the studio to work on ideas for the album that would eventually become Pet Sounds (now generally accepted as his magnum opus). His interest in pursuing his own creative ideas leads to tension with the rest of the group, however, and being introduced to LSD does not help his mental state much, either.

The other section of the film picks up the story over twenty years later (dates are not given on-screen, but apparently the later section occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s). Elizabeth Banks (one of those actors it seems I’ve been watching in different things for years without it ever actually registering) plays Melinda Leadbetter, a car saleswoman who encounters a troubled and fragile older Brian Wilson (John Cusack). The two hit it off, but she quickly comes to realise that Brian is now firmly in the grip of his psychiatrist/manager, Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who insists on controlling every aspect of his life. Even as she realises the depth of her feelings for him, she is forced to ask herself whether she is motivated by a genuine desire to help, or if she’s just another person who wants to take something from him?

Dano and Cusack are billed as Brian-Past and Brian-Future respectively, which sounds odd until you learn that early versions of the script featured a third Brian from the 1970s: the period in which Wilson famously once spent several years without really getting out of bed (apparently Philip Seymour Hoffman was at once point considered for Brian-Present). I’m not entirely surprised this segment was dropped, and what I suppose we must call Wilson’s most troubled years remain the dark heart of the film, never really explored, but always lying ahead of his younger self and overshadowing his latterday life.

Pohlad does a good job of making a cohesive film out of a narrative which thus has a hole in the middle of it to some extent, and more than that is made up of two quite different stories. The 1960s stuff with Dano is reasonably standard musical-hero bio-pic material – darker elements of their background are tastefully touched upon (in this case, Wilson’s abusive relationship with his father, whose credentials as a hostile figure are established when he opines that the lyrics to God Only Knows sound ‘more like a suicide note than a love song’), the creation of a revered classic is dwelt upon in some detail, and there’s the slightly clunky device where a supporting character goes out of their way to tell said musical hero just how innovative and brilliant they are. But Dano’s performance is customarily good and it did make me want to go and find out more about Wilson and the Beach Boys.

The 80s and 90s material is a rather different kettle of fish. John Cusack is, well, John Cusack, so you know you’re not going to see something awful, but I found his performance to be just a little bit mannered: and Dano is so effortlessly convincing as the younger Wilson that it’s Cusack you feel inclined to criticise when the two performances don’t quite join up to form a seamless whole. He’s not even playing the lead role, though, as this is much more the story of Melinda Leadbetter and her relationship with Wilson – the film shies away from using someone with such pronounced mental problems as a viewpoint character. Nevertheless, Banks is very good, and Paul Giamatti is not afraid to be horrible as Gene Landy (again like the Winehouse movie, I bet there were pre-screenings of this film attended by battallions of lawyers scrutinising it for actionable material).

And, above all, there is something genuinely affecting about this story and the redemptive effect that Leadbetter had on Wilson: spoilers again, but the two have been married for twenty years, and while the Brian Wilson who occasionally pops up on tour sometimes seems like a slightly detached and awkward figure, he still seems to be in much better shape than he would have been without Leadbetter’s intervention in his life. So this is a story that deserves to be told – celebrated, in fact. Love & Mercy veers between the experimental and the routine too often to be a genuinely great movie, but it’s certainly not a bad one.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published June 26th 2003:

The ‘all-star cast’ movie has become something of a rarity these days, what with the ballooning salaries our leading actors demand making it financially rather more of a challenge to put one together. Then again, the fragmentation of cinema itself has made the definition of stardom rather broader than once it was – performers like Donny Yen and Bruce Campbell are legendary figures within their own genres, but largely unknown in the mainstream. Even in the old days, though, the really impressive cast-lists were usually restricted to international co-productions normally based on classic novels. Which makes the relatively well-known cast attracted to James Mangold’s quirky new thriller Identity all the more impressive.

On a dark and stormy night, a disparate group of people find themselves stranded in a motel in the Nevada desert. Amongst them are a limo driver (John Cusack) and his diva-ish employer (Rebecca de Mornay), a call-girl who has ambitions to become a market-gardener (Amanda Peet), a cop (Ray Liotta) and the convict he’s transporting (Jake Busey), and some troubled newlyweds (Clea DuVall and William Lee Scott), none of whom are strictly what they appear to be. One of them has been badly injured in a road accident and needs medical attention, but all communication has been cut off with the outside world. And an already grotty situation gets positively foul when it becomes apparent that a murderer is on the loose, and more than willing to hack and slash his way through the cast list…

As seems increasingly common these days, Identity draws from a wide range of sources for its scenario. The script itself obliquely refers to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which is the most obvious donor, but there are also references to Psycho and other slasher movies, the post-Tarantino school of plot structure, and even (although I admit this is probably just coincidence) the last series of Sapphire and Steel. But it welds these various influences together quite pleasingly, into an indie-ish style of its own. There’s a lot of frantic cutting back and forth in place and time between various plotlines at the start, which isn’t particularly involving, but with the reassuring appearance of John Cusack the film settles down and rapidly becomes very enjoyable.

Much of this is thanks to a series of impressive turns from the cast, nearly all of whom get their moment to shine. To be fair to them, Cusack and Liotta are largely trading on their stock personae (deadpan laconicism with a dash of sensitivity for Cusack, unstable bullishness for Liotta), but they spark well off each other. Peet is particularly good in a fairly off-beat role, and I would’ve liked to have seen more of de Mornay’s faintly OTT over-the-hill star (hmm, that’s possibly a spoiler…). But Mangold’s direction is assured and atmospheric, and the script – initially at least – builds cleverly and carefully.

However, Identity is flawed – in that it sometimes seems just a bit too keen to clue the audience in as to exactly what’s going on. Mostly this takes the form of a series of apparently unconnected scenes involving a psychologist (Doctor Octopus, or – as I believe he prefers to be known – Alfred Molina) at a legal hearing, but there are lots of other small, revelatory moments that make it clear that something rather peculiar is going on. And most of them come just a bit too early in the film. In the past I’ve complained about good movies ruined by useless twist endings (Frailty leaps to mind as a particular offender) – Identity is a movie with not one but two actually pretty decent plot twists, the second of which actually half-surprised me (and this from a man who guessed the ending of The Sixth Sense). It’s just a shame Mangold and scripter Michael Cooney couldn’t have arranged their story so the surprises weren’t so obviously foreshadowed. (And I have to say that while I found the main twist to be engagingly innovative and quirky, it may just seem annoyingly silly and implausible to those of a less forgiving bent.)

But anyway. This is a fun and well-made film, loaded with solid performances and with a plot that it’s actually moderately tricky to guess the truth about. And any film where somebody says ‘You know, that story’s so far-fetched it just might be true’ immediately gets some goodwill from me. Enjoyable, in a low-key don’t-worry-about-the-details way.

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