Friday Movie Roundup: The Curious Case of Spike Jonze

Spike Jonze is a curious case.

Born into the Spiegel mail-order catalog fortune (his given name is Adam Spiegel), the teenage Jonze found solace in the skateboard/BMX bike culture of the 1980s. A DIY-bred autodidact with an oddball sense of humor, Jonze’s filmmaking “career” kick-started with a series of crafty skateboard videos that caught the attention of the Beastie Boys, who eventually recruited him to direct their playful, refreshingly lo-fi video for 1994’s “Sabotage.”

A series of inventive music videos followed, all of which were informed by Jonze’s boundless imagination and complete indifference to the flashy, jump-cut-laden techniques that flooded other MTV fare. —-

He brought the same rules-busting, youthful spontaneity to his first feature film, 1999’s Being John Malkovich, a masterful meta-comedy written by the like-mindedly off-center Charlie Kaufman that appeared the same year Jonze married Sofia Coppola (they would divorce a few years later) and had a plum acting role in David O. Russell’s Three Kings.

Could it really be this easy for a shy skateboard kid to get the keys to the Hollywood kingdom?

Apparently so. Three years later, adaptation — another Kaufman-scripted, comically neurotic effort that features perhaps Nic Cage’s best performance — surfaced, confirming Jonze’s place in a burgeoning American New Wave that also included Russell, Coppola, Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson.

Then reality set in. The days of Hollywood studios giving millions of dollars to arty, DIY-bred directors were on the wane right around the time Jonze mounted his most ambitious (and personal) film to date, an adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. Six years and many a battle with Warner Bros. later (they thought his initial cut of the film was too dark and meandering), Jonze’s dream project finally sees the light of day.

The result — as Warner Bros. feared, and as Steven Rosen writes in his review — is a dark, often bewildering tale rife with Jonze-ian touches, most notably the bizarre, beautifully crafted sets and handmade costumes for the film’s elaborate monsters and Jonze’s deadpan presentation of material that would seem to call for a more sensational take. What I didn’t expect was such an emotionally naked look at the impact of broken families.

I’m not sure Jonze’s vision of the film completely works, but I’m heartened by the fact that something as personal and peculiar made it to the screen.

Don’t expect to see the likes of it again.

Opening films:

THE BOYS ARE BACK — Based on journalist Simon Carr’s 2000 memoir, this Oscar-bait drama from perpetually serious-minded director Scott Hicks finds Clive Owen back in brooding mode as the recently widowed dad of 6-year-old Artie (Nicholas McAnulty) and 15-year-old Harry (George MacKay), his estranged son from a previous marriage. (Read full review here.) (Opens today at Esquire Theatre.) — Jason Gargano (PG-13.) Grade: B-

LAW ABIDING CITIZEN — Screenwriter Kurt Wimmer sees a world in which there is little balance in terms of law and order, and to right the scales drastic action must be taken. From Equilibrium to The Recruit to Street Kings, Wimmer caters to the notion that in the service of good, an equal measure of wrong must be accepted. His Law Abiding Citizen is a loving father and husband (Gerard Butler) who survives the vicious home invasion that takes the lives of his wife and young daughter. (Read full review here.) (Opens wide today.) — tt stern-enzi (Rated R.) Grade: B-

PLAY THE GAME — Writer/director Marc Feinberg raids the television actor cupboard with a romantic comedy featuring none other than Andy Griffith in a central role. I then suppose it’s a not-so-subtle gag that Feinberg cast the brother of Ron Howard, the ever-creepy Clint, as Griffith’s estranged son. The cast also includes Doris Roberts, Marla Sokoloff and Paul Campbell in a movie that looks more suited for the Lifetime Channel. Yet word from my spies is that Griffith receives an onscreen blowjob at some point in the narrative. If true, that likely qualifies Play the Game as one of the scariest movie of the year. (Opens today at Mariemont Theatre.) — JG (Rated PG-13.) Review coming soon.

THE STEPFATHER — First off, you know this is a remake of a relatively effective 1987 thriller focusing on the horrors within broken domestic situations. The update sticks closely to that dynamic. Secondly, there’s never any doubt about the scenario because we see Dylan Walsh’s psycho calmly walk away from one family that he’s either broken or frozen in deadly perfection (take your pick) before he saddles up to Sela Ward’s newly divorced sexy mother of three in a grocery store. (Read full review here.) (Opens wide today.) — tts (Rated PG-13.) Grade: D

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE — Spike Jonze’s melancholic adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is a very interesting movie for adults in the way it uses childhood fantasy to explore issues of loneliness, sadness, alienation and forgiveness. (Read full-length review here.) (Opens wide today.) — Steven Rosen (Rated PG.) Grade: B