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  DVD Reviews - Being John Malkovich and High Fidelity

      Date posted: April 29, 2001

Being John Malkovich:
Spike Jonze, director; Charlie Kaufman, writer; USA Home Enertainment; Anamorphic Widescreen 16 X 9 (1.85:1); English Dolby Digital 5.1 & 2.0; French, Spanish Subtitles

High Fidelity:
Stephen Frears, director; Touchstone Home Video; Anamorphic 16 X 9 (1:85-1); English Dolby Digital 5.1; Spanish Subtitles; 114 Minutes

      It’s almost impossible to describe the plot of Being John Malkovich, and if I did, and you hadn’t actually seen it, you’d think I was crazy. The suspension of disbelief threshold is pretty high in a story based around being in John Malkovich’s head for 15 minutes only to be thereafter unceremoniously dumped from the air onto the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike…and that’s only the rational opening part of the film.

High Fidelity

     John Cusack offers a brilliant portrayal of a total loser obsessed with puppetry, who discovers a way, a “portal”, to enter the great actor’s mind, and with the help of an extraordinarily vivacious young woman, played by unknown Catherine Keener, turns this odd metaphysical warp into a business, charging $200 per Malkovich visitation. Keener literally steals the film and everything in it, including Malkovich, but now I’m starting to give this outrageously funny and quirky plot away.

     Cameron Diaz gives an odd low-key performance as the puppeteer’s pet-obsessed wife, while Cusack’s character eventually becomes Malkovich’s internal puppeteer, the climax of the film being the actor’s performance of his Dance of Despair and Disillusionment, the dance that also begins the film performed by a puppet. “Wha?, you say?” Get this DVD and marvel…and laugh!

     Malkovich may be set up as the great actor, and Cusack as the schmuck here, but in High Fidelity we see the range of the latter actor, who carries this film that’s also full of weird, obsessive characters. This time they’re running a vinyl record store, Cusack the failing owner, Rob, with a pair of rock trivia nut employees. Music buffs will recognize the guy played deliciously by Jack Black, who spends his time protecting the store’s past pop treasures, often finding customers unworthy of acquiring them. An anal, fact-obsessed record clerk is not the path to selling records.

     But this is all a subplot to Cusack’s quest to find himself through revisiting all his former girlfriends, after the current one dumps him. All men have faced this kind of crisis, making the whole travel through the adolescent and post-adolescent past a journey of self-recognition for many viewers, and not just for males, either. There are a lot of types of relationships to recognize here, and they make for a very funny movie.

     Audiophiles will appreciate the sound quality of the music soundtrack, and those of my age will recognize the movie title’s appropriation of the cover logo of the long-defunct US magazine, High Fidelity. And our hero Rob’s audio system looks almost as if it came from a pawnshop: Marantz tuner, McIntosh amp, and NAD CD player. I never did recognize the turntable.

     There are some great extended cameos by major stars in High Fidelity, Catherine Zeta-Jones playing a ditzy airhead ex-girlfriend who floats her way through life, and Tim Robbins as one of those conflict-resolution assholes with a cellphone, a pony tail, and too much incense floating around his fancy flat.

     There’s a lot of Chicago in this film, and a lot of rain in Chicago. Rob gets wet a lot. And the soundtrack is as good with the sounds of the city as it is with the vintage rock: musically nostalgic and sonically atmospheric and great surround.
But the most striking thing about High Fidelity is the way Cusack as Rob addresses the audience directly as he wanders from place to place, girl to girl, and insight to insight; you are drawn into his world, not necessarily really liking it, or him, but becoming a participant in the film, none the less. I guess that’s why the somewhat sentimental ending was jarring, since it wasn’t what would have probably happened in my world. Otherwise the film is a gem and an acting tour de force for Cusack.

     What is common to both films is his everyman-as-klutz charm, and when this is surrounded by quirky characters and good screenwriting (High Fidelity was a collaborative effort involving Cusack in both script writing and music selection), his films can come alive as both of these do.

Being John Malkovich

     Both are beautifully shot, much of Malkovitch being night-lit, and High Fidelity as bright and colourful as Chicago, even in the pouring rain. Those of us who’ve haunted the city’s great record stores around CES time (I’ve gotten some incredible vinyl treasures at Rose Records and other stores over the years) will feel very much at home in this film’s cinematography.

     Malcovich is mostly shot in New York, and it reflects that tempo, with a twist: once you get into the whole 7-and-a-half-floor business at the film’s beginning, you start to think that there just may be something odd going on here. And the use of colour gets brighter and more vivid as the film gets stranger.

     But it’s the use of sound that is really interesting. I bought this DVD last summer in Winnipeg on a jaunt from the cottage near Minaki, and watched it on my portable player, listening on headphones. The way the in-Malcovich’s-head scenes are done is uncanny when listening this way. I really did feel like I was in somebody’s head, the sound fully binaural: when he scratches the top of his head it seems to come from above; when he drinks his coffee or chews his Melba toast, it seems to come from just below and in front…uncanny! I’m not sure how all this played out in a large theatre, but in my home theatre room these Dolby Digital effects are still there, but on a larger scale, like he’s got a big head, eh? And the sex scenes, well…

     In both of these films you feel like you’re part of the joke, and that’s why they’re so successful. You can be both participant and voyeur, and I think that’s the key to why they both translate so well to the more intimate DVD medium.
Special Features - Being John Malkovich: Theatrical Trailer, TV Spots, and An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering are the main ones, plus an interview with director Spike Jonze. There’s also a suitably quirky addition called An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Background Driving, which explores the adventures of all those people hired to cruise the New Jersey Turnpike while people were falling from the sky onto the highway shoulders. Fascinating! Cast and crew biographies and filmographies and Spike’s Photo Album complete the extras.

     High Fidelity - The first unwanted extras were a succession of trailers (or previews, depending on how you look at it) for other movies, including Mission To Mars, Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo, and Scream 3. Why would Touchstone Video want to preface a really good film with hype for 3 certified stinkers? A question for the ages.
The interesting stuff starts with fascinating interviews with both Cusack and director Stephen Frears, which are, unfortunately broken up into a dozen chunks that have to be selected on the menu. In one of the clumsiest bits of programming I’ve seen on a DVD, you have to wait for more than 30 seconds after each chunk ends until the menu reappears so you can select the next segment. Are they really trying to piss us off, or what?

     If you can wait your way through all this, there are insights into why the original London-based cult novel by Nick Hornby was relocated to Chicago for the film, how the music was selected, the casting of the film, and Cusack’s understanding of Rob as a jerk. Frears is interesting in his balance of ego and humility, showing himself as a director who lets the actors shape the film; footage of Jack Black doing just that is fun, as Frears notes that good casting is simply “accumulating bits of common sense”.

     Also fun are the deleted scenes, the funniest of which is Rob’s refusal on moral grounds to buy a priceless collection of 45 rpm singles at fifty bucks flat, from an angry divorcee played hilariously by Beverly D’Angelo; he tries to bid her up, starting at $1500, while she’s only willing to raise the price to $90 (they’re her philandering husband’s treasures, of course). I wish they’d left the scene in, but perhaps it does deviate from the film’s overall direction. It might also be said to show a note of nobility in Rob that’s a little jarring. In general, the extras here do make for a better understanding of High Fidelity, and do make up for the initial unwanted ones.

Andrew Marshall

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