Tag: John Malkovich

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

Sexist, violent, crude and deeply disgusting. Transformers continues to make you weep for your childhood memories

Director: Michael Bay

Cast: Shia LaBeouf (Sam Witwicky), Josh Duhamel (Colonel William Lennox), John Turturro (Seymour Simmons), Tyrese Gibson (Robert Epps), Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (Carly Spencer), Patrick Dempsey (Dylan Gould), John Malkovich (Bruce Brazos), Frances McDormand (Charlotte Mearing), Kevin Dunn (Ron Witwicky), Julie White (Judy Witwicky), Alan Tudyk (Dutch Gerhardt)

I’m ashamed to say when I saw it in the cinema I sort of enjoyed it. Goes to show how the excitement of a trip out can make the most ghastly, horrible, vile piece of work feel like fun. Even at the time, I recognised enjoying Transformers: Dark of the Moon was like becoming engaged with the story-telling in a porno. Doesn’t change the fact it’s a crude exercise, pandering to your baser instincts.

The plot? Autobots. Decepticons. Blah, blah, blah. Don’t worry if you’ve not seen the previous films: this merrily contradicts them. In the 60s an Autobot ship crashes on the moon, the moon landings were all about exploring the wreckage. In the present day our “hero” Sam (a never more annoying, unlikable Shia LaBeouf) can’t land a job and the Decepticons hatch a plan to destroy the planet by bringing their homeworld Cybertron here. Former Autobot Boss Sentinal Prime betrays everyone. Optimus Prime doubles down on being a psychopath. It’s very loud and makes no sense.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon exposes Michael Bay’s aesthetics as those of a porn director. Everything is crude, huge, brash, obvious, tries to do as much work for you as possible and panders to your worst instincts. Dark of the Moon is shocking in almost every possible sense: from its crude sexism and leering camera, its revoltingly heavy-handed, end-of-the-pier, terminally unfunny comic relief, its overlong, explosive battle sequences (shot with the slavering longing of a pornographic gang-bang). Dark of the Moon is a revolting film, a disgusting perversion of what was a kids cartoon.

Can you imagine letting a child watch this? Let’s deal with its disgusting sexism first. Megan Kelly had been sacked between this and Revenge of the Fallen for denouncing Michael Bay’s working basis (I’ll admit calling him Hitler went too far). Every chance in the film to disparage her character is taken (two appallingly unpleasant tiny Autobots all but call her a bitch). She’s replaced by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, introduced walking up-stairs, the camera starting at her feet and trailing up, lingering on her bottom (she’s wearing just a slightly-too short shirt). Later two characters will discuss “the perfect curves” of a car – while the camera pans up her body. Those are only the most egregious of the deeply uncomfortable sexual objectification of this poor woman.

How about its crude humour? Several actors enter a private competition to give the loudest, least funny comic cameo. Malkovich gurns and rants as Sam’s pointless, kung-fu obsessed boss. John Turturro does whatever he wants as a Transformers obsessed former-agent. Kevin Dunn and Julie White are eat-your-fist levels of unfunny as Sam’s parents. Worst of all is Ken Jeung as a Deep Throat style informer whose every scene is crammed with homophobic jokes about anal and oral sex. Remember, once upon a time this was for kids. All this alleged humour does is add to the already bloated run-time. You’ll suffer through every single word, because you certainly won’t miss it due to laughing. Bay’s idea of funny is if the joke is delivered LOUD by a wild-eyed actor, preferably accompanied by a whip-pan. He’d probably love Roy Chubby Brown.

The film has two of the least likable heroes perhaps ever placed on film. Shia LaBeouf must have genuinely hated himself by the time he made this. Perhaps that’s why he makes no effort to make Sam even one per cent likeable. Sam is a whining, petulant man-child, alternating between bitching about his job to bragging about his trophy girlfriend (whom he spends half the film whiningly chasing). In the first of these films, LaBeouf had a goofy charm. Now the character is just a deeply arrogant little prick, with major entitlement issues. LaBeouf shouts and screams throughout, but mostly just looks really angry at himself for even being there.

Then we come to the pièce de resistance: Optimus Prime. When I was a kid, this noble warrior was like the perfect Dad. Traumatised kids wept when he died in the animated movie. Revenge of the Fallen started turning him into a violent killer. This completes the journey. Bay probably thinks Prime is a bad-ass taking names. He’s actually a violent, psychopathic killer who arrives at a battle with the inspiring words “We will kill them all”. Prime allows the whole of Chicago to be destroyed (at the cost of millions of lives) to prove a point to the stupid humans. At the film’s end he reacts to Megatron’s offer of a truce by ripping out his spine and then executes Sentinel Prime by shooting him point blank in the head while Sentinel pleads for his life. Ladies and gentlemen: our hero.

It’s customary to say the special effects are good, so: the special effects are good. The violence is pornographic, shot often in slow-mo, with explosions, fast editing and huge noise filling the screen. Transformer bodies are mauled, beheaded, eviscerated. There are several rather chilling executions. Prime rips out the equivalent of heart, lungs, eyes and brains. Bay adds a reddish oil to the transformers, which looks like blood spraying up. Just like the humour, the action goes on FOREVER. The final Chicago battle takes up fifty minutes of buildings falling, brutal slaughter and triumphalist flag-waving. After repeated viewings it’s not just boring, it starts getting offensive.

Dark of the Moon is, quite simply, only just (only, only, only just) better than Revenge of the Fallen – and it says it all that it’s because it’s not as racist. In every other sense it’s simply revolting: violent, crude, sexist and homophobic. This is a horrible, horrible film made by a soulless director. It genuinely is like a beautifully shot pornographic film that wants you to respect the craft that’s gone into it while you finish yourself off. For a brief few seconds you might get sucked in – but you’ll certainly not be boasting about it afterwards.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Glenn Close and John Malkovich play games of lust and sex in Dangerous Liaisons

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Glenn Close (Marquise Isabelle du Merteuil), John Malkovich (Vicomte Sébastian de Valmont), Michelle Pfeiffer (Madame Marie du Tourvel), Uma Thurman (Cécile de Volanges), Swoosie Kurtz (Madame de Volanges), Keanu Reeves (Raphael Danceny), Mildred Natwick (Madame du Rosemonde), Peter Capaldi (Azolan), Valerie Gogan (Julie)

Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos Les liaisons Dangereuses had been a stunning success in the West End and on Broadway – so a film adaptation of this lusciously set story of sex was inevitable. Stephen Frears’ film keeps the story grounded in its setting of pre-Revolutionary France, but deliberately encourages a modern looseness, even archness, from its actors that makes it feel grounded and modern.

The Marquise du Merteuil (Glenn Close) and Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) are two French aristocrats who fill their time with seductions and sexual manipulation of other people, while conducting a dance of attraction around each other. Du Mertuil wants revenge against her ex-lover by getting Valmont to seduce the lover’s innocent intended bride Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman). But Valmont is more interested in setting himself the challenge of seducing the unimpeachable Madame du Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer) – du Merteuil so convinced the task will be impossible that she bets him if he seduces du Tourvel, she will sleep with him as well. These games of sexual manipulation develop with disastrous consequences for all involved, as unexpectedly real emotions of love and affection intrude on the heartlessness and contempt.

Frears’ film won three Oscars for its most striking elements: production design, costumes and Hampton’s script. Hampton’s script provides a series of striking scenes and tongue-lashing dialogue for its stars. Meanwhile the film looks marvellous, it’s use of French locations superb in creating the world of decadence that these characters move in, while the costumes are so strikingly, elaborately intricate they practically become characters themselves. The film opens and closes with scenes of dressing and de-dressing: the opening sequence shows Merteuil and Valmont being dressed in their elaborate finery, a sequence uncannily reminiscent of knights being dressed for war, ending with shots of their defiantly cold faces starring down the lens. The film bookends this with the film’s key survivor, brokenly wiping away from their made-up “public face” probably forever. It’s a film that uses the intricacy of the period, to strongly suggest modern, dynamic tones and emotions. 

The film is shot with a series of tight shots, intermixed with the odd long shot, that is designed to bring us in close with the film’s serial seductions and envy-powered clashes. This brings us straight into the middle of the events, giving them an immediacy and suddenness that makes this feel like anything but a traditional costume drama. Seductions have a steamy immediacy, while the growing moments of tension in the relationship between Mertuil and Valmont is similarly bought in close to us, to allow us to see the mix of emotions these two have for each other – both a deeply, unexpressed, love and a strange sense of loathing linked together with a possessive jealousy.

Frears makes marvellous use of mirrors in the film. These reflective surfaces appear in multiple shots and frequently expand the world, mirrors reflecting characters as others discuss them, or forcing into shot (usually between two other characters) the subject of conversations. They reveal (to the viewers) eavesdroppers hiding and, in one striking shot, as Valmont and Mertuil’s latest lover argue she is framed in reflection hanging above them on the wall mirror. There’s a reason why one of the film’s final sequences revolves around the smashing of a mirror in grief. 

The film’s modernism also stems from its use of very modern American actors – apeing the success of Milos Forman’s Amadeus – with everyone using their own accents. Glenn Close is superb as Mertueil, a woman projecting a cold, manipulative authority but does so to suppress and hide her own emotional vulnerability. Mertueil has convinced herself that she is a champion of her sex, but her every action seems to be motivated by finding indiscriminate revenge on all those who have found the sort of happiness she has been denied (or denied herself). Close lets little moments – wonderfully captured by the intimacy of Frears’ camerawork – where moments of micro-emotions and pain flash briefly across her face, only to be wiped away.

Malkovich is an unusual choice as Valmont – and his serpentine swagger and arch mannered style at first feels quite a disconnect with a character renowned as the most successful lover in France. But Malkovich’s eccentricity, his very oddity, in a way makes him believable as a man women would find intriguingly irresistible. Malkovich, while naturally perfect for the coldness of the character, is also highly skilled at expressing the slow, non-continuous growth of conscience and feeling in Valmont, as his feelings for Tourvel dance an uncertain line between manipulation and genuine feeling – and while his confused feelings for Mertuil alternate from possessive devotion to revulsion.

The whole cast respond well to Frears guidance, and his ability to draw relaxed performances from an odd selection of actors. Michelle Pfeiffer is particularly fine in a role that on paper could be very dull – the perfect, kind woman – but which she invest with such a seam of emotional truth and longing for deeper connections, combined with naked emotional honesty that she becomes the most compelling character in the film. Uma Thuman is very good as a naïve young girl, Kurtz and Natwick suitably arch as society bigwigs, Peter Capaldi creepily willing as a manipulative servant and even Keanu Reeves has a certain sweetness about him, even if he is at the height of his “Woah” dudeness.

The film’s principle problem is perhaps the very archness and coldness that makes it affecting. While it’s intriguing and intelligent, it is never perhaps as engaging as it should be and its characters are so jet-black, deceitful and cruel that it becomes hard at points to really invest in this chilling story of unpleasant people using other unpleasant people and manipulating innocent ones. It becomes a film easier to admire, perhaps carrying too much of the freezing chill of imperial French greed and selfishness. Come the denoument for all the skill it is played with the actors, it is hard to feel your emotions invested or your heart moved by any of the fates of the characters. Perhaps, in presenting a heartless world of selfishness and lies, it does its job too well.

Being John Malkovich (1999)

A portal into the head of a famous actor? What better way to find out what it’s like Being John Malkovich

Director: Spike Jonze

Cast: John Cusack (Craig Schwartz), Cameron Diaz (Lotte Schwartz), Catherine Keener (Maxine Lund), John Malkovich (John Horatio Malkovich), Orson Bean (Dr Lester), Mary Kay Place (Floris), Charlie Sheen (Himself), W Earl Brown (JM Inc Customer)

Is there a more consciously eccentric film ever made than Being John Malkovich? Can you imagine the pitch to the Hollywood suits? 

Our hero, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is a weedy, bitter puppeteer (as well as creep and potential stalker), whose wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) fills their house with rescue animals, from talkative parrots to a chimp with PTSD. Needing to make ends meet, Schwartz takes a filing job at a company based on floor 7½ of an office block (it’s a low ceilinged floor built between the other two floors – it’s cheaper on the rent obviously) where he becomes obsessed with his sexy co-worker Maxine Lund (Catherine Keener), who is resolutely not interested. But all this changes one day when Schwartz finds a fleshy, dark tunnel behind a filming cabinet that takes someone into the mind of actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich) – for 15 minutes, before expelling you onto the New Jersey turnpike. Sounds like a business interest for Schwartz and Maxine (spend 15 minutes in someone else’s body!), but the experience of being in someone’s body slowly begins to change Schwartz, Lotte and Maxine – and having his brain invaded has a terrible impact on Malkovich himself.

If that’s not the oddest plot you’ve ever heard, then I don’t know what films you’ve been watching. The film was the brainchild of Charlie Kaufman, who developed from this into one of the most distinctively gifted screenwriters in Hollywood, a master of the quirky and weird, the off-the-wall and the science fiction tinged everyday fantasy, blessed with the ability to mix in genuine human emotion amongst the oddness. 

Being John Malkovich is an inspired idea and Kaufman’s script is ingenious in its structure and progression. Never once does the film settle for the expected narrative development or the conventional structure. It’s a livewire of a film that constantly leaves you guessing, switching tone and throwing logical but unexpected plot twists at every turn. There are plenty of moments where you could expect events to take a conventional turn, but the film never settles for the obvious.

Kaufman’s inspired script was lucky enough to find a quirky visual stylist who was willing to embrace it as much as Spike Jonze did. Jonze’s direction is a masterclass in small detail, slight twists and little touches of invention that never draw excessive attention to themselves but combine to make a thrillingly off-the-wall final picture. 

Jonze knows that the jokes and surrealism of Kaufman’s script are so effective that they don’t need a firm directorial hand to lean the humour on – they work absolutely fine presented almost as written, and make for terrific entertainment. He shoots the low ceiling of floor 7½ with such straightforward confidence that each scene becomes hilarious for its stooped actors and crammed rooms. Jonze can therefore concentrate the flourishes on core moments, from the puppetry that Schwartz and later a Schwartz-controlled Malkovich make their life’s work, to assorted training and educational videos that pepper the film at key moments.

Like Kaufman as well, Jonze’s storytelling works because he inherently understands human emotion and isn’t afraid to throw it into the film alongside the humour. Plenty of directors would have been happy to have all the principals settle into being comic stereotypes, or overplayed pantomime figures. Jonze encouraged the actors to find the depth – and sometimes the darkness – in their characters, to ground the film effectively with touches of real life tragedy and human flaws that give weight to the surreal sci-fi elements – so much so that they start to feel as real as the rest.

John Cusack’s Schwartz is a bitter, increasingly twisted fantasist and dreamer – the sort of guy who believes that his lack of willingness to compromise his art in any way is a strength (his puppetry shows are highly complex, sexualised, high-blown, poetry-inspired hilarious puffs of pretension). Schwartz could have become a joke or a guy with a big dream – but the film increasingly shows him to be a dark, obsessive, cruel even dangerous outsider, who has no problem with harming other people to get what he wants, his moral compass is driven by his self-assessment of himself as a man treated badly by others, so doing what he wants is somehow deserved. It’s an increasingly dark portrait of a man who has more than hint of danger to him.

Keener, as the focus of his obsession, also does extraordinary work as a woman the film is not afraid to present as unpleasant in her selfishness, casual cruelty and greed – but a woman who slowly allows herself to open up and reveal an emotional openness and romanticism someone watching the start of the film would never expect. Similarly Diaz’s downtrodden, sad wife at home flourishes and grows as a person, as she finds in herself a new comfort and ease with who she is, from inhabiting the mind of another person. Both are excellent.

The film explores fascinating ideas of identity – Lotte and Maxine find a freedom and an exciting otherness in being a passenger in another person’s body, and use it as voyages of self discovery for themselves. Schwartz on the other hand sees this body – just as he sees all human beings – as just another puppet for him to control, another way of adjusting the world to match his requirements, rather than change anything about himself. While some lose themselves in Malkovich’s body and find the experience rewarding, Schwartz can only find happiness when bending the body to his own will.

And what of Malkovich himself?  Well has there ever been a braver performance in film? Malkovich is superb as an arch portrait of himself as a rather self-important actor, with an unknowable coolness about him, an intellectualism that makes him a man easy to respect but strangely hard to relate to, a face that is distinctive but a strangely unrelatable style that makes him hard to remember (it’s really an extraordinarily funny and brave performance). As Malkovich realises what is happening to him, the film plays with real beats of tragedy and even horror – what would it be like to be forced into being a passenger in your own head? This is nothing compared to the horror Malkovich encounters when he enters the tunnel himself – to find himself in a world where everyone looks like Malkovich and can only speak using the word “Malkovich”.

Being John Malkovich uses its surreal ideas to explore profound – and even chilling – ideas of control, destiny, personality and identity. With several superb performances, a brilliant script and controlled and intelligent direction, it’s a film unlike any other – and continues to delight and surprise twenty years on from its release.

Beowulf (2007)

A CGI Ray Winstone faces off against monsters, temptation and fate in Beowulf

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Cast: Ray Winstone (Beowulf), Anthony Hopkins (King Hrothgar), John Malkovich (Unferth), Robin Wright (Queen Wealtheow), Angelina Jolie (Grendel’s Mother), Crispin Glover (Grendel), Brendan Gleeson (Wiglaf), Alison Lohman (Ursula)

Around the turn of the century a new style of film-making (and I guess acting) burst into the world of Hollywood. There had been special effects and there had been animation. We’d seen actors transplanted by CGI into any number of settings and locations. But motion-capture was something else. Its leading pioneer is of course Andy Serkis, and the art involved essentially placing a load of dots on people’s faces to record every inch of their movements and then feed this physical performance into a computer to create a CGI personality that unified actor and special effect. 

Zemeckis, always a pioneering film maker, was fascinated by the art and had used it on previous films – but Beowulf was his real push to create something that couldn’t have been done without motion capture. So Ray Winstone – a bulky middle aged actor – is here transformed through the computer into a slim, muscular man in his early thirties. Winstone plays Beowulf himself, and Zemeckis’ aim here was to bring to life in a way that had never been done before the ancient poem. And not only the humans would be motion captured: Grendel and his mother (played by Crispin Glover and Angelina Jolie) would also be powered by real-life human performances.

It makes a fascinating film visually to watch. Zemeckis’ camera work has the complete freedom to roam anywhere around the actors (every move they made was recorded into the computer from every angle). And he doesn’t hold back, with the camera swooping and sliding around every dimension and angle of the locations, often moving freely and swiftly with a series of engrossing tracking shots and fast moving sweeping panoramas. 

It also means that having real performances behind every creature in the film adds a real human dimension to even the most vile monsters. Crispin Glover’s physical commitment – not to mention the searing, twisted pain in his every moment – humanises Grendel in a way his simple monstrous appearance never could. The later dragon has a real feeling of humanity behind it, for all its scales and arrogant cruelty. Angelina Jolie reported she felt surprisingly uncomfortable when she saw the final realisation of her performance as Grendel’s mother – imagined here as an extremely seductive succubus, permanently naked with perfectly formed curves – but the entire thing works because of the performance behind the animation.

Some of the motion capture isn’t always of course completely successful. There is something still slightly too shiny, slightly too polished about the faces – part of the film being a slightly strange halfway gap between animation and real acting. The eyes suffer most – for all the efforts of the animators there is something still slightly dead behind, something not quite of the human face about them. It’s something that you can’t help but spot, and can’t help but be disconcerted about.

But it largely comes second to some of the imagination that exists in this version of the story. Zemeckis’ film making is often visceral and bloody – and the action sequences are as involving as he manages to make the other sequences are engaging. Not everything works: Beowulf fights Grendel in the nude, and the decision to have Beowulf’s ‘bits’ constantly obstructed by a series of fortuously placed items smacks somewhat of Monty Python and seems tonally off from the rest of the film. But by and large it works.

It does this because the script from Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery mixes the original poem with something reminiscent of Macbeth. One of its key themes is the seduction of power and the inner guilt of heroes who know that they have feet of clay. Grendel is reimagined as the son of Hrothgar – seduced by Grendel’s mother with offers of power, he creates with her Grendel, the living embodiment of his flaws. Grendel’s mother represents the creeping temptation of greed, ambition and the “old ways” (the film plays up the Christianisation of the Vikings in the background throughout). She’s effectively all the witches rolled into one (but much hotter).

And Beowulf is ripe ground for our temptations as it’s made clear right from the start that – while clearly a great warrior – he is also a triumphalist blowhard who enjoys repeating and expanding his own myth. A story recounted about his fighting sea monsters during an epic sea swimming competition (‘It used to be just one’ comments best friend Wilfric) is a masterpiece of puffed up self-promotion on top of genuinely impressive deeds, Beowulf’s words diverging from the story we see on screen towards in the end is a neat foreshadowing of his eventual seduction by Grendel’s mother. 

Beowulf isn’t an empty boaster though. He’s a sympathetic Macbeth who feels guilt about the “sound and fury” that his life story has become. The aged Beowulf in the second half of the film is weary, tired and full of self-loathing, his great name an oppressive weight he can’t live up to or escape from. He’s a man who knows all the time he has feet of clay, but the name of a God – and that the name is so important he can’t let anything puncture it. Wilfric twice refuses to allow Beowulf to divest his conscience: the legend is so important it’s been printed as fact.

Ray Winstone handles this all pretty well – even if a lot of this requires sorrow behind the eyes, that motion capture simply can’t provide – even if the transformation of his face makes him look more like Sean Bean than a younger version of himself. Hopkins and Malkovich embrace all the cavorting and expressive body movement of motion capture like the old hams they can be. The film’s real highlight is Robin Wright who makes a great deal of Hrothgar then Beowulf’s sad wife, unhappy, quietly aware of both her husband’s flaws and perhaps the only level headed person in the Kingdom.

Beowulf has some fine technical work, but its real lasting interest is the psychological depths it tries to explore in its hero. Far from the perfect warrior, he’s someone doubtful and doubting, whose insecurities and vulnerabilities grow throughout the film and finally – like a mix of Lear and Macbeth – only becomes fully sympathetic at the very end. It makes for an interesting remix of a story nearly older than any other in our culture.