My Spike Jonze Review Thread

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I forgot the opening line.
Spike Jonze

Started : Photographer - BMX and skateboarding for Freestylin' Magazine
Director of Video Days (1991) - short film

Academy Award nominations/wins :
Directing - Being John Malkovich (1999) - nom
Best Picture - Her (2013) - nom
Best Writing - Original Screenplay - Her (2013)
Best Original Song - "The Moon Song"" - Her (2013) - nom
My movie ratings often go up or down a point or two after more reflection, research and rewatches.

Latest Review : The Long Goodbye (1973)

I forgot the opening line.
Spike Jonze has directed some great films, but the bulk of his work has been in the field of directing music videos. I'd like to review some of them, but if I end up doing that I'd probably make a new thread in the music section and do it there - leaving links to the various videos on this post, in this thread.

I forgot the opening line.

Adaptation - 2002

Directed by Spike Jonze

Written by Charlie Kaufman
Based on a novel by Susan Orlean

Starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep & Chris Cooper

From the moment you start to hear Nicolas Cage's internal monologue to the end credits, Adaptation surprises, satisfies and excites people who enjoy stimulating and thoughtful cinematic eccentricities. An ultimate kind of meta movie, which is about the process of it's own screenwriting, at one stage becoming a narrative ouroboros before managing to eke out a third act which takes aim at modern moviemaking and crass commercialism. It was the perfect follow-up for Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman after wowing audiences worldwide with Being John Malkovich and earning a second Academy Award nomination for Kaufman - especially pleasing for the screenwriter considering the uncertainty that plagued him over whether his crazy idea was a good one or stupidly indulgent. The film features fantastic performances, and instantly earned it's place amongst my personal favourites.

This movie begins with the process Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) went through, of being chosen as the screenwriter for an adaptation of The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. His fictional brother Donald is living with him, annoying the hell out of Charlie, and although he's close to a woman by the name of Amelia (Cara Seymour) he's too awkward and socially inept to become romantically involved. As Charlie struggles to adapt the book, we see the real (for us - cinematic) version of it play out with Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean and Chris Cooper as Orchid poacher John Laroche - the man she becomes fascinated with. Charlie faces a daily battle to maintain his intellectual credentials in the face of superficial, facile advice from his brother, pressures from his agent and his own insecurities. After writing himself into his own screenplay, he feels the need to meet Susan Orlean herself to complete some kind of third act, in which the mindless Hollywood movie-making machine wins out, and the film comes to a climactic clichéd ending with car chases, guns, glib life-lessons learned and a romantic happy ending. Orlean's book has jumped off the page and continues in real life.

There's a lot of great stuff in Adaptation. There are your typical modern-day awkward encounters that make you want to look away in sympathetic empathy - Charlie always managing to turn good encounters into horrific moments with the opposite sex. These are moments so painful and disaster-filled I can barely watch. At times, for comparison, we see inside of his occasional fantasies that contrast so starkly with the reality of his situation. For further contrast, the movie flits and changes focus from the gloomy existence Charlie lives in to the more exotic and exciting world John Laroche lives in, which attracts The New Yorker writer Susan Orlean so much. The film has fun with exaggerated and outsized components to real-life characteristics relating to everyone involved. Charlie sweats so much he looks like he's just dipped his head into a bucket of water - his shame so awful that his inner mind is tormented. His agent is so one-dimensionally superficial that he constantly talks about sex acts he's performed on various women that pass by. Orlean is portrayed as sad and lacking passion until she finds inspiration in Laroche's own passions.

The actors gathered here were some of the best, at their best. Nicolas Cage, who plays both Charlie and Donald, was nominated for an Oscar for Best actor, up against a particularly strong field and losing to Adrien Brody for his part in The Pianist. As usual, there's a lot of fun and a slight sense of madness in Cage here. Meryl Streep was included, gaining one of her very many Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress, but being beaten by Catherine Zeta-Jones for her part in Chicago - an Oscar win I don't agree with. Streep wonderfully let a sense of sad, lonely yearning pervade her character - and once again she makes me see only her character. Chris Cooper won his category - Best Supporting Actor - beating the likes of Christopher Walken, Ed Harris, John C. Reilly and Paul Newman. Cooper has aid with a prosthesis that makes it look like he's missing all of his middle teeth, and his character has the smooth dirtiness of a slick con-man, and a slight edge of manic-depression about him. His passions, which at one stage move on to the internet porn business, always sound like get-rich-quick schemes - but he moves in a seductive and masculine manner.

This film followed a very successful directorial debut from skateboard and music enthusiast Spike Jonze, who had been making music videos for the likes of Beastie Boys, Weezer, Wax and R.E.M. throughout the 1990s. To aid in this, nearly the entire crew from that film signed on again for this one. Cinematographer Lance Acord had been director of photography on that film and this, doing great work contrasting Charlie's dimly lit, grey, gloomy, dark and seemingly doomed existence to the much brighter, colourful action revolving around Laroche and The Orchid Thief. There are some really good shots in Laroche's van and in various swamps hunting for orchids, and in various ways revealing the characteristics of orchids in their natural habitat. Acord would go on to be cinematographer on Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette and another Spike Jonze film, Where the Wild Things Are. He put together his own production company and has also delved into the directorial process himself making music videos and television specials.

The score and music is composed by Carter Burwell, who had also scored Being John Malkovich, and would be Oscar nominated later in his career for the music of Carol and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - two great films. For Adaptation he gives us a very, very quiet and unobtrusive score which goes easy, and at some times is only just discernable - even in tense moments. The characters power the mood, along with the lighting, and they play the more prominent role in this. There's great use of the song "Happy Together" performed by The Turtles - Jonze actually had Weezer record a version of the song (which they have released) but in the end preferred the other version since it fit more neatly into the vibe of the film as a whole. It's mentioned as being part of the film during the film, and since this is such a meta exercise it does play during the end credits as well. Now whenever I hear it, I think of Adaptation - movies can really change the mental picture you have of certain songs - and that's certainly true of this.

Eric Zumbrunnen, the editor, would be interesting to talk to. Once again, Jonze had someone who had done the editing on Being John Malkovich (it really was a wholesale continuation) and Zumbrunnen would continue with the director to do editing work on Her and Where the Wild Things Are. The reason I'd like to talk to him is the fact that Adaptation spent an unusually long amount of time being edited into a finished feature - in fact it nearly beat the studio's (Columbia) all time record, which goes to the disaster Ishtar. I can look at Adaptation and see it as a complicated editing process, with a few genres being mixed together, and comedy is hard to get exactly right - but I can only try to understand why it would take so long to finish. The pacing and timing of certain scenes was worked on a lot and tightened. One scene that did take five months to finish was the "bee scene" where the insects pollinate certain flowers and orchids, which is something visual effects supervisor Grey Marshall created with his team before working with Zumbrunnen. There were certainly many unusual and tricky elements to fine-tune.

Production Designer K.K. Barrett had also done Being John Malkovich, as had the art director, set decorator, costume designer and both people in the casting department on this. Usually one or two collaborators need to be changed just due to circumstance, but both Being John Malkovich and Adaptation were made by almost exactly the same people. The film does look good, and has specific sequences such as one which shows us in quick-time the evolution of life on the planet from the very beginning of the Earth's formation to the first plants, single-celled organisms, creatures leaving the sea, the dinosaurs being wiped out and human industrial and technological process. This is because the theme of "adaptation" itself is so strongly adhered to in all it's forms. Charles Darwin and his theories of evolution, which pertain to insects and orchids (the above-mentioned bee scene also looks good) is included. The design of everything from the screenplay to the artist's easel captures the essence of change, adaptation and the process of conformity - or breaking new ground. The survival of the fittest, as it pertains to writing and the struggle of life itself.

The movie turned out to be funny and intelligent - but in a way that's very surface level and easy to interpret. Most people who watch Adaptation will come away from it understanding the ideas it was setting forward, as clever as they were they weren't inscrutable. Charlie Kaufman's mind transferred to words spoken by Cage in the screenplay often ponder aloud both inanities and more profound contemplations like most minds do. Best of all is the way this comes together in a 3rd act that very purposely lends itself to the formulaic pattern of Hollywood movies. This way, the film can have it's cake and eat it too as it lays out an ending that studio suits would be very happy with, but at the same time be absolutely tearing the whole process apart by mocking it in the manner it does. I'm ashamed to admit that I loved Donald Kaufman's profound life lesson he conveys to Charlie - that our love belongs to us and therefore can't be tainted - before realising that this very moment was really there to poke fun at the need for such moments towards the end of most films. More stark is the unlikely brightening of Charlie's love life when he admits his love to Amelia.

So, Adaptation has been a favorite of mind for two decades now. Tilda Swinton got some precious screen time in it, and Gary Farmer showed up for a short moment (his moments usually are.) Most Awards committees joined in the fun by including "Donald Kaufman" when they handed out or nominated screenwriting awards, since this fictional person was included in the credits. I've always seen the inclusion of Donald in the film to be Charlie's more commercial side - the part of his brain that's perfectly willing to sell out sometimes, and the one that has the dumb kind of ideas that he might reject but which, once out, film executives love and won't let go of. Donald's most silly idea actually found itself mutating into a film called Thr3e despite being an obvious joke - the whole reason it found it's way into the mouth of the Donald character is that it would sound exciting to Hollywood money men, but be incredibly stupid by anyone's standard. The film, apparently (I haven't seen it) is terrible - but it exists now, in the real world. I might never see it, but I'll never tire of watching Adaptation due to the superb craftmanship and great performances on display, which are enjoyable to admire every so often. The process of adaptation is a universal force of nature, and it works it's way into our art and permeates our creations as well.

I forgot the opening line.
I think you should include the music videos. Just my .02.
You know what - I'd prefer that. I thought there was a chance there would be a few complaints about them not being movies, but you can consider them as short films and I really want to be thorough on my directors threads. Hopefully everything runs smoothly - because reviewing these video clips is fun.

Wax : Hush (1992)

Frenetic, with a soft kind of out-of-focus jumble of shots. Interesting first-up for director Spike Jonze. Wax were more famous for a Jonze collaboration that came a few years later, but this early effort, filmed in Chicago, Illinois, was his debut music video for a song that came from the album "What Else Can We Do" - Hush. It's very basic, with few effects - just a lot of movement, the main center of which involves a bunch of kids at a small playground. The tempo is lifted by a lot of fast-cuts near the end. Bike riding is definitely a Jonze staple - and I like the cheery vibe. Definitely one that gives me a good feeling. The song itself is not great, and the debut album never did anything. Very 1990s. "Those kids are grown men and women now - but they gave us hell that day in Chicago" is what the band says on their YouTube page.

Sonic Youth : 100% (1992)

The quality of video lifts considerably, as does the music on this next video directed by Jonze. Sonic Youth had underground success during the 1980s, but were just about to enter the mainstream with the album "Dirty" and they gave Jonze a chance to use a lot of skateboarding - his number one passion (much of the skateboarding material was shot while Jonze was riding one himself), and the video clip also makes use of Jason Lee, skateboarder-turned-actor who'd be a regular in many Kevin Smith films. 100% is a very good song, and that makes this video all the more pleasant to watch. The song talks about the murder of Joe Cole, actor, writer and roadie who was shot dead during a robbery in late '91. We get some standard indoor shots of the band performing interspaced with the skateboarding and dead body narrative. 100% debuted at 22 on the charts eventually making it to number 4 in mid '92. Sonic Youth's best performer to date.

Chainsaw Kittens : High in High School (1992)

I do not enjoy this at all. Some average pop/punk from the Chainsaw Kittens who never really made it in their day, releasing five albums through the 1990s. There's some stock footage in this video for a track from their album "Flipped Out in Singapore" and the rest is basically from a live performance and various shots of the band walking the streets and driving. The song needed something more - a uniqueness which the Chainsaw Kittens don't seem to have. Jonze did a reasonable job with the video.

The Breeders : Cannonball (1993)

Cannonball was a successful single from The Breeders' "Last Splash" album, cracking the top 50 in the United States, Britain and France, where it peaked at No. 8. Kim Gordon co-directed the video with Spike Jonze, and it's a definite lift in quality from previous videos he'd done. The song is great, and The Breeders did have their own unique sound which makes them enjoyable to listen to. A rolling cannonball seems to suggest the motif we see often in Jonze videos - with either skateboarding, driving, bike-riding shot while the camera is in motion itself. The underwater shots are great, and very different. Most of the video shows The Breeders performing in some kind of studio/warehouse. Easy to watch because the music and video are well done. Breeders band member Kim Deal was also a member of the Pixies.

X : Country at War (1993)

Influential Punk Rock band X was one of those bands that became an influence to many fellow musicians more then attaining any kind of mainstream success. In 1993 they released a comeback album after reforming, having started in 1980 - "Hey Zeus!" was their seventh studio album, and Country at War reached No. 15 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart. The video features the band playing on a street corner, and features bike riders, clowns, joggers, buskers and dancing people. I really like the song a lot, and I think the video showcases X in an effective and honest way. The band continues to tour to this day and are worth checking out.

The Breeders : Divine Hammer (1993)

The second single from the "Last Splash" album from The Breeders peaked at 59 on the UK charts and 28 on the U.S. alternative music charts. It's not as good a song as Cannonball, but it's okay, and the video is kind of cute with the flying nun stuff. This video was co-directed with Kim Gordon and Richard Kern, and features the band playing and horsing around. The "divine hammer" The Breeders are talking about comes from the oft-mentioned carpenter's hammer mentioned in many U.S. Christian rock bands, with the songwriter working through their own existential angst in comparison.

I forgot the opening line.
Teenage Fanclub : Hang On (1993)

Teenage Fanclub's fourth album, "Thirteen", wasn't particularly good, and everyone had a field day saying so. This track from the album, Hang On, doesn't impress me very much and is middling, if not outright poor. Jonze puts together a very generic video for the band, with shots of them playing and getting up to tame horseplay in London. Not anyone's finest hour.

Luscious Jackson : Daughters of the Kaos (1993)

Luscious Jackson weren't exactly hit-makers, but their Beck-like rock-rap on Daughters of Kaos makes it well worth listening to, and the video, with it's colourful filters and easy pace seems like a good enough visual companion to the song. I enjoyed listening to this, and can't help feel that perhaps Luscious Jackson were a better alternative rock group than they got credit for. This song came from their debut/demo EP "In Search of Manny" - something I wouldn't mind hunting down and getting.

Beastie Boys : Time for Livin' (1993)

Luscious Jackson were an early Grand Royal label recorded group, and Grand Royal happened to be the Beastie Boys own label - here Spike Jonze gets right back to his core obsession with skateboarding to whip up a quick video for the angry and straightforward punk ditty Time for Livin' which came from their "Check Your Head" album. It's a little too punk for me.

Weezer : Undone – The Sweater Song (1994)

A new year, and a step up in quality with this famous video for Weezer's Undone - The Sweater Song, a very early track from them which featured on their "Blue Album". This video was set up to be a 'one take' deal and it took quite a while before they had a satisfactory take in the can. This marked Weezer's first ever music video, and it looks great and is good to watch (it helps that the song is pretty good as well.) It cost $60,000, with a blue stage and a pack of dogs introduced to the one shot of the band playing their song. This video became an instant hit on MTV and helped propel the band forward. I love it.

Weezer : Buddy Holly (1994)

And out-and-out classic video for one of my favourite songs - another hit from the "Blue Album". The band didn't think Spike Jonze could pull it off, but with clever camera-work and editing he managed to insert them into hit TV show Happy Days with the help of Al Molinaro and others. I would have loved the song regardless of the video, but for it to be so good was like an extra emphasis on what I feel about it. Jonze's two videos for Weezer really feel like a creative burst 3 years on from his video experiment during his photography days - his experience now paying off, and his ideas hitting home.