The Criterion Collection presents Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich in its original aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 on this dual-layer disc. The new high-definition transfer, which comes from a 4k scan from a 35mm negative, is presented in 1080p/24hz.
The film is available on Blu-ray editions in other regions but I believe this edition marks its debut on Blu-ray in Region A, only released on HD DVD previously in North America. I haven’t seen any other high-def versions of the film so don’t have a basis of comparison, but when compared to Universal’s original DVD there’s really no competition: The Blu-ray is the way to go, improving over the noisy mess that was Universal’s previous DVD. The transfer here is much smoother and cleaner, free of noise and distortion. Black levels are a little on the washed side and some crushing occurs but colours look to have better saturation and depth, with the blues looking rather stunning. The image isn’t as crisp as I probably expected, looking a bit fuzzy around edges, and finer details rarely pop out, but this could be the intended look. Film grain remains and is rendered well but is not heavy and barely noticeable.
The print is quite clean with only a few minor blemishes remaining, but this isn’t too surprising for what really is a relatively newer film (okay, it’s been over 12 years, which blows my mind when I think about it.) In all, for the format, it’s not stunning but in comparison to the DVD it offers a noticeable upgrade and is more film-like in look. 8/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Even though this edition still tops Universal’s so-called “Special Edition” DVD, it feels like an opportunity has been missed here. The film’s over 12 year’s old and it would have been interesting to maybe get a more analytical slant and possibly more interviews with members of the cast and crew. But unfortunately we only get a few items here, and most of the items found on the previous DVD haven’t made it. Thankfully the features aren’t a bunch of gags, which is something I feared would be the case, considering the previous DVD and Spike Jonze’s contribution as “Rick Spaulding” on Criterion’s Beastie Boys DVD release.
As I first dove into this edition I wasn’t sure what I was going to get with the first feature, a selected scene audio commentary by director Michel Gondry, Jonze’s friend and “competitor”. The track also features Gondry’s longtime editor, Jeff Buchanan, who is there to ask questions and keep the track going. It runs 57-minutes, playing over certain sections of the film, but I actually do suspect that it ran the entire length before it was edited down to its present form. The notes state that it was cut down for “reasons of accuracy, audience interest, and legal liability.” At first I thought this would have been a joke but after listening to it I wouldn’t be surprised if that really was the case as Gondry doesn’t hold back (it’s not every day you hear someone come right out and say that Vincent Gallo is an “asshole” in an audio commentary for a movie that has nothing to do with Gallo.) There are odd short breaks, like one where I assume Gondry and Buchanan are looking up if actor Orson Bean is still alive (he is), but there are big gaps where it does feel like we missed something, though Gondry suggests later on he’s been silent through a lot of the track, and that the track is excrement.
It starts oddly with Gondry seeming to be confused that he is to talk about Being John Malkovich and not one of his films like he was apparently told. From here Gondry talks about when he first saw the Malkovich script, which blew him away, and led him to work with Kaufman on Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He also covers in great detail the eventual jealousy he felt after seeing the film, even throwing in comments on how he may have done the film. He throws in jabs at Jonze here and there, and he eventually does call up Jonze when he runs out of things to say. The two then get into a conversation and keep the track going from here, which covers the last act of the film.
It’s an odd track and I’m not sure what to make of it honestly, but I enjoyed it overall, found it to be genuine and sincere, and fairly humourous thanks to some of Gondry’s random comments. But at an hour it’s fine, any longer and it may have been too much.
For this edition filmmaker Lance Bangs puts together a 33-minute behind-the-scenes documentary made up of on-set footage called All Noncombatants Please Clear the Set. Mixed in with a few interviews, primarily with Catherine Keener, we see plenty footage from the set giving an idea of the loose feel of the shoot. There’s an amusing amount of complaining from cast and crew about the 7˝ floor set, and a look at the job(s) of Jonze’s brother Sam, who got whatever crap-job nobody wanted, which included walking Keener’s dog and making sure no one walks on to the set while filming was happening. We also see some of the gags that occurred on the set, like how Diaz’s trailer was tee-pee’d, and it also appears food fights were a common occurrence. We also see Jonze step in for a stunt woman who managed to really hurt herself during the filming of one scene and there’s also a look at some of the sets, like the portal and the 7˝ floor, and we see some props like the Malkovich masks. More interviews with the cast and crew would have been welcome but it’s an amusing little piece that gives a rather fascinating look at the making of the film.
Moving on, the real letdown to this release for me, as I’ve hinted at previously, is the lack of interviews with the cast. Thankfully we at least get an interview with the most important person: John Malkovich. Interestingly Criterion has recruited comedian John Hodgman to interview Malkovich. I was expecting this to be a sort of gag supplement, with Hodgman possibly trying to embarrass Malkovich, but that’s (thankfully) not the case at all. This is a genuine, mostly serious interview with the actor, a few minor jokes and jabs scattered about. Here Malkovich talks about getting the script and his initial reaction to it: after originally seeing the title he figured it was someone just trying to get clearance to use his name in a story, which he was fine with, but was a bit surprised by what was in it, and was blown away by the writing. He talks about Kaufman (who sadly, though not surprisingly, appears nowhere in the supplements here) and Jonze and from here he talks about how the film impacted his career. Hodgman and Malkovich then talk about how the film might have worked in the present, where, thanks to the internet, celebrities have no private lives, and how people use the technology express themselves, which amusingly leads Malkovich to imitate the “Sittin’ on tha toilet” video. It’s actually a rather surprising interview, going in directions I wasn’t expecting.
Spike Jonze next goes over a collection of photos taken on the set. The 15-minute piece presents Jonze (who initially jokes this is for the 30th anniversary chip implant edition of the film) going through the photos and recalling the many people who worked on the film, the casting (with a lot of detail about Diaz’s unlikely yet oddly spot-on casting,) and his fond memories of the shoot. He also gets into detail about Universal’s purchase of Polygram, which actually may have saved the film as the original execs were nervous about it. Universal, after they took over, didn’t care and let Jonze do his own thing, and were apparently more than pleased with it when they saw the finished product. As a companion to the making-of it rounds out the production history rather nicely.
The remaining supplements all appeared originally on the DVD edition released by Universal. We get the complete 7˝ Floor Orientation video, running a little over 2-minutes, followed by the complete bio that appears within the film, ”America Arts and Culture” presents: John Horatio Malkovich “Dance of Despair and Disillusionment”. This piece lasts over 4-minutes.
We also get what was probably the most sincere supplement from the previous DVD, the 7-minute piece called An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering, which presents an interview with puppeteer Phil Huber who performed the puppet acts in the film. On top of seeing his stage work, and some behind-the-scenes footage of him performing on set, we also get a few interviews with actual puppeteers and their reaction to how the art was presented in the film. Still a nice little feature and I’m glad it at least made it.
The disc then closes with a series of TV Spots, including a joke one for “JM Inc.”, and then we get the original theatrical trailer. The booklet contains a gag interview between Perkus Tooth and Spike Jonze, Tooth frustrating Jonze with his ridiculous readings into the film.
Sadly a few of the funny supplements from the DVD didn’t make it over, including another interview with Jonze, where the director begins to vomit, a segment on the “art of background driving” (which was actually pretty good) and an ingenious feature called “there is nothing here.”
The content is good and enjoyable but admittedly I would have liked a more critical look at the film. And with the features reaching just over a couple of hours, it does feel a bit light. But it’s at least more informative than the Universal DVD. 7/10