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Sundance 2010: Spike Jonze renews his career

January 22, 2010 | 11:56 am

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If only Spike Jonze had made "Where the Wild Things Are" with robots instead of animatronically enhanced animals.

The eclectic auteur hasn't been on the minds of many filmgoers or buyers coming into Sundance, maybe because his festival entry was nestled in a shorts program (and debuting opposite the much anticipated, and eventually much maligned, "Howl" on Thursday night), maybe because his most recent effort kind of bungled a children's classic.

But after his extended short "I'm Here" screened first Thursday night and again Friday morning in Park City, all that's changed. We were hardly alone in thinking that, even at this early stage of Sundance, his movie may be among the best pieces of filmmaking that plays the festival this year.

The narrative for "I'm Here," which Jonze wrote and directed, is at once high-concept and difficult to explain. In a world that looks much like our own, robots mingle among the rest of us as vaguely second-class citizens. One robot in particular, a mild-mannered machine named Sheldon (Andrew Garfield) leads a humdrum life, doing little but taking the bus to and from his menial library job and coming home at night to sleep (er, recharge) before starting it all over again the next day. His life changes, however, when he meets a punky young femmebot, and the turns their relationship takes are fresh, funny, soulful, Jonezian (let's just say it involves robot amputation, among other things).

(Side note: Sundance routinely brings in some great emerging filmmakers and plays their shorts in a block. This year organizers brought some great established filmmakers and played their shorts in a block, and the results have been solid. Several of the other movies sharing screen time with Jonze had their virtues -- a stylish if unevenly executed animated critique of consumerist culture called "Logorama," a thoughtful if not entirely surprising border-policy documentary "The Fence" and a pleasantly absurdist Scandinavian effort called "Splitage" -- though none was as strong as "I'm Here.")

Comparisons for the film to "Wall-E," David Cronenberg's "existenZ" and a Jonze-shot Ikea commercial all rolled off festgoers' lips, and the movie evokes all of that, but also something far more original. While it employs the same tech guru who brought the "Wild Things" creatures to life, the film returns the director to his "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" days -- it's bristling with ideas and imagination, but doesn't forget the heart either. And it inadvertently points up the problems with "Wild Things," which short-shrifted most of these elements. It's almost as though with less time and a lower budget (not to mention a lack of studio interference; Absolut financed this movie, and clearly left him alone), Jonze was able to infuse his work with a lot more energy.

For Jonze fans and skeptics, "I'm Here" shows, after the dispiriting example of "Wild Things," that he can skillfully write a movie without Charlie Kaufman. With Jonze still contemplating his next film, one can only hope it's as good as this short -- or, better, that he decides to develop this short into a feature.

--Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Andrew Garfield (Sheldon). Photo Credit: "I'm Here."

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Comments () | Archives (3)

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Can't wait to see it (if it ever comes out on DVD). Except I loved "Where the Wild Things Are". It was sad and I can understand why some would not like it, but I hardly think it "bungled a children's classic" as you put it. It was different, and although it wasn't necessarily for kids it was an intriguing take on a classic book. It might not have lived up to your expectations, but it by no means was a desecration against the book (Sendak loved the movie).

I think all of Jonze's films have mixed intellectual themes with an emotional heft. That's why I love his movies. From "Malkovich" to "Wild Things", all of his characters have faced the absurd within the confines of reality. And it's quite painful and often sad (Malkovich is his bleakest movie), but in the end his characters try to live with themselves as well as the world they inhabit, no matter how strange or painful or confusing it is.

Maybe Steven, you measure the "Wild things" film by the book too much. Somehow I missed the book growing up and found the movie kind of magical and quite original.

Director Spike Jonze's short film, "I'm Here," was the most exciting film of the year to experience. As far as movie magic is concerned, Spike Jonze is leading the pack; Spike's films, "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation," "Where the Wild Things Are," and now, "I'm Here," all fascinate audiences with Spike's authentic visual style. "I'm Here" is a good movie for audiences to see, because the film helps its audience members enjoy their own creative and imaginative sides, as they watch the film. Spike Jonze is one of the most imaginative directors Hollywood has in it.

Brendan Ryan

The Brendan Ryan Company
Houston, Texas


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