Friday, June 20, 2008

Be Kind Rewind

Director: Michel Gondry
Starring: Jack Black, Mos Def, Melonie Diaz, Danny Glover, Mia Farrow, Sigourney Weaver
Running Time: 94 min.

Rating: PG-13


*** (out of ****)


They’ll be many viewers who will have major problems with Michel Gondry’s latest film, the VCR era comedy Be Kind Rewind. They’ll have difficulties seeing it as anything but a huge step back for the filmmaker responsible for such visionary achievements as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep. They may even view it as a complete waste of Gondry’s talents.

While I can see where they’re coming from, I would urge them to take another look and pick up on the small touches that make this a trip worth taking. It’s the second movie in the past couple of weeks I’ve seen that’s about how we watch movies and what they may mean to us. Except this one’s also celebrates how we make them. It’s a fascinating mess that’s at times probably more a mess than fascinating but that it works at all considering its ridiculous premise is a huge accomplishment.

There are actually many times it comes close to failing completely since it wants to do a million things at once and through most of its running time only succeeds doing one of them really well. But by the end it won me over with its creativity and Gondry convinced me he knew what story he was trying to tell the whole time, he just took some crazy detours getting there. It will also go down as the most confusing chapter yet in the polarizing career of Jack Black. If you hated him before, you’ll feel even more validated now. Yet if you’re a fan, you’ll probably find this to be one of his more satisfying performances. I’m neither, so his manic work here really did nothing to sway my opinion of him in either direction. I still don’t know what to make of the guy as an actor.

Mike (Mos Def) an employee of the neighborhood VHS rental store Be Kind Rewind is temporarily put in charge by its owner, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) as he goes on a little field trip to spy on West Coast Video, who rake in the dough by renting out DVD’s. This change in format is Fletcher’s last hope to increase revenue for the store, which is to be demolished and replaced by a new business complex if he can’t bring it up to code within 60 days. Mike spends most of his time at the store hanging out with his best friend Jerry (Black) and obsessing over a story told to him by Mr. Fletcher about legendary jazz musician Fats Waller who supposedly was born in that very store. Fletcher’s final (and for a while indecipherable) instruction to Mike before leaving is to “Keep Jerry Out.”

It’s good advice because after the hyperactive and over ambitious Jerry suffers an electrical shock while attempting to sabotage local the power plant he becomes magnetized, erasing every video in the store he touches. They panic and figure the best way to solve the problem is to re-shoot the films with their camcorder and cast themselves as the leads. It starts with Ghostbusters and Rush Hour 2, but when word gets out just how entertaining their versions are they’re taking requests and filming most of the stores’ catalogue. The process of them recreating these films is referred to by Jerry as “Sweding” (as in coming from Sweden) a term that seems destined to enter the pop culture lexicon if this movie catches a cult following. Lines are forming down the street for these hometown celebrities and the pressure is mounting to raise enough money so Mr. Fletcher’s store isn’t demolished.

At first I wasn’t quite sure what this film wanted to be and it took a while to find its groove. It actually reminded me a lot of Clerks, not just in setting, but in terms of tone and the types of characters that are presented. There are even arguments with batty customers, like the loyal Miss Falewicz (played memorably by Mia Farrow). That gets thrown for a loop when Gondry introduces the magnetism element to the story, which feels more like sci-fi but then that is quickly discarded when it no longer serves the purposes of the story.

With the video store potentially being demolished and its fate depending on two down on their luck losers I thought we were being set up for a clich├ęd feel-good comedy as well. It is, but ends up going a little deeper than that and is memorable in that it gives Danny Glover his best supporting role in years. It was great to see him finally given a real person to play for a change and he takes full advantage of it, giving his best performance in years. He has a hilarious scene where he’s browsing the DVD rental store taking notes, as if categorizing films by genre is the most ingenious thing he’s ever seen in his life.

What works in this film REALLY works and it’s obvious right off the bat what that is: Their re-creations of these films. I could have probably watched these all day and the only thing I didn’t like was that there weren’t more of them. The big joke here for movie fans will be that you could argue some of their versions, which in quality resemble those bootlegged tapes you’d get off the street (not like I would know or anything) are more entertaining than the original films. That’s definitely true of Rush Hour 2 and the laughs keep coming as they shoot homemade versions Robocop, The Lion King, Driving Miss Daisy, 2001: A Space Odyssey and When We Were Kings.

It’s ingenious how Gondry uses these junkyard props and just two or three actors to create these homemade movies and the entire exercise can almost be viewed as a celebration of not only independent filmmaking, but creativity in general. It was central to the story that these movies look really bad, but bad in a fun way so you’d understand why all of Passaic would be camping out on the sidewalk to see them. Those are difficult waters to navigate but Gondry does it perfectly. At one point there’s a thrilling montage showing us the movies theses guys are shooting (all at once) as their titles pass across the screen. Its moments like that that help give the film some focus and bring clarity to all the different tones fighting for screen time.

You never know which Jack Black will show up when he’s headlining a film. Will it be the insufferable, annoying actor who tries way too hard to please (Saving Silverman, Nacho Libre) or the one capable of great work when a good director reins in his manic tendencies (High Fidelity, King Kong, Margot at the Wedding)? This may be the first time both show up in the same film and battle for dominance. He starts off rough since at first the plot is just one big excuse for him to go over-the-top but when the film starts to find its dramatic focus so does he and the good Jack Black eventually wins out, if just barely.

Mos Def counter-balances him well with a low-key performance and when the extremely likable Melonie Diaz enters the picture as the third member of their crew things get even better because the three leads have great chemistry together. What started out as Clerks starts to feel more like Clerks 2, which isn't a bad thing at all. Against my better judgment I really started to care what happened to all three of them and the fate of Fletcher’s video store.

The message Gondry is trying to present here is clear. It’s a statement against today’s mass commercialization of movies and in taking us back to the VCR era he’s trying to remind us of a time when it was all about passion rather than the big bucks. Mike and Jerry’s homemade movies could very well be viewed as a shot against all those mindless big budget remakes Hollywood has felt the need to punish us with these past few years. Except these remakes are made by fans with a genuine passion and respect for the original, a trait severely lacking in all the blasphemous big budget disasters we've suffered through.

I was waiting to see if the movie would bring up what should be the obvious issue of copyright infringement or just ignore it. Much to my delight, Gondry put it in. Sigourney Weaver’s appearance as a corporate big wig protecting the studio’s rights was clever and funny, and a reminder that those who needs their rights protected the least often get the most help. Everything pays off at the end with a near-perfect and somewhat ambiguous finale that delivers its message clearly without hitting the audience over the head with it. I’m betting some may even find themselves moved. It’s no coincidence that the best movie these guys end up filming isn’t a remake.

Coincidentally, a couple of weeks ago I hooked up my VCR again and was amazed just how terrible the quality of VHS tapes looked. I actually watched those? We’re definitely spoiled now with this technology and I don’t miss the format but I agree with Gondry that there’s been a lot of change both inside and outside the film industry since we abandoned them…and much of it hasn’t been good. Despite a really rough start this movie is too creative and contains too much heart for me not to endorse it. Material like this, in the hands of another writer or director could have been a real disaster. Instead given the wacky, gray area Gondry’s working in, Be Kind Rewind ends up being be a lot smarter and funnier than it should have been.

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