Friday, February 22, 2008

"Be Kind Rewind" -- * * * 1/2

It's difficult to dislike a film that basically just extols the potentially transformative power of movies (even the worst ones) and tries to articulate why they're important and valuable to the human condition. But while a film having that message will always score it points, it wouldn't matter much if it didn't demonstrate those themes itself. Michel Gondry's endearing, funny, strange and often magical "Be Kind Rewind" is clearly made with a love for the art form, and practices what it preaches at every turn. Like other works of Gondry, this isn't a polished, carefully mapped-out piece of filmmaking; in fact, this is probably (and intentionally) his least disciplined film. The enthusiasm and "let's just try this" feel practically bounces across the screen, and ultimately helps to exemplify the film's points that art that comes from a place of passion or genuine feeling may be more valuable than the most pristinely-attuned masterwork.

The movie opens with our two Passaic, N.J.-based heroes, Mike (Mos Def) and Jerry (Jack Black) painting a graffiti mural of late great jazz pianist Fats Waller (who figures more prominently into the proceedings later on). We soon find out Mike works in the local independently-run video shop, Be Kind Rewind, run by Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), who seems insistent on keeping Jerry as far away from the merchandise as possible. When Fletcher leaves town on mysterious business, Mike is left in charge of the store. Through a series of complications involving a local power plant, Jerry is electrocuted, magnetized, and inadvertently erases all the VHS tapes in the store. Local zany woman Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow, in a role I hope and pray resembles what she's like in real life) is determined to rent "Ghostbusters," and not wanting to disappoint her, Mike and Jerry decide to shoot their own low-budget, 20-minute-long version, hoping she won't know the difference. After other customers come in seeking other films, and word begins to spread, Mike and Jerry ultimately have to make their own versions of dozens of movies, telling the customers they're "sweded" (from Sweden), thus explaining the high cost and why it takes so long for the films to be ready to be rented after being requested.

With "Be Kind," Gondry further establishes himself as an exciting filmmaker, a la Todd Haynes, Spike Jonze, Julian Schnabel, Julie Taymor, who's interested in using film primarily as a means of artistic expression and exploring (occasionally daffy, off-the-wall) ideas rather than adhering to what movies are "supposed" to be. He doesn't seem too concerned with awards or critics, and infuses every frame with elements that anyone who has followed his career could identify as profoundly "Gondry." He has a fanciful style of direction (lots of "Punch-Drunk Love"-esque strange sounds/score) that may infuriate some audience members, but just made me giddy. I particularly loved his movie posters and business signs made out of cardboard, establishing that this world isn't really supposed to be reality, but rather a sort of makeshift, slightly askew environment. Early on in the proceedings, soon after Jerry becomes magnetized, he gets a little too close to the camera, and the screen (our POV) literally shakes with static; Gondry throws a lot of similar quirks at us throughout, and I completely dug them. While some might say he's more suited for music videos and artsier forums, an extended tracking shot that moves from one homemade set to another shows that he's a born filmmaker.

While I was anticipating the release of "Be Kind Rewind," based on the trailer I assumed it would be compromised Gondry, or an attempt on his part to make something more "commercial." Happily, I can report that this is not the case. The opening sequence-- a fake old-style, grainy black-and-white jazz documentary that will only be funny to those who have seen ones like it before-- announces at the outset the movie's non-mainstream nature, and makes it clear that it isn't going to be a commercial endeavor. I still think it's probably the closest Gondry has come to making an "accessible" movie, but it'll still likely be too weird for, say, my parents, and a bit too "quirky" for those who've embraced Jack Black in some of his other works. New Line Cinema seems to know this, as they're semi-dumping it this weekend in only 800 theaters and not giving it much of a marketing push. While I can't say their worries are un-founded, this is a movie that could have really found an appreciative audience if put in the hands of a studio that could gently nurture it like Paramount Vantage or Focus Features (who are handling it internationally). In comparison to Gondry's other works, this is easily the most unabashedly "cornball" and good-spirited, and arguably the most unhinged. There's not the pathos and sadness here that was present in "Science of Sleep" or "Eternal Sunshine," but there's also a sweetness that was only hinted at in those films. Different though it may be, through it all, it's undeniably the work of the same artist.

The "sweded" re-creations make up substantially less of the running time than I think people might be expecting. The re-making shenanigans take up about 50% of the running time, with the first act dealing with the video store's situation and the magnetization of Jerry, and the third act dealing with the aftermath, repercussions, and the community coming together through Jerry and Mike's filmmaking. The madcap and zany nature of the first act is incredibly fun (there's a brilliant bit involving camouflage), and the third act extremely moving (more on that later), but the re-creations are the film's raison d'atre, and easily its high points. They may not make up a bulk of the running time, but when they come, they're fantastic. The first "sweded" film, "Ghostbusters," is the one we see in the greatest detail and length, and is most assuredly the movie's centerpiece and highlight. It's absolutely hilarious, but really all the re-makes have such an infectious sense of low-rent joy that it's impossible not to at least smile during them. The "sweded" versions of "Rush Hour 2" (with Jerry as an offensively-accented Jackie Chan), "Driving Miss Daisy" (which Mike initially pooh-poohs as "condescending") and "2001: A Space Odyssey" are also particularly inspired, though we glimpse numerous others. These re-creations also reward-- but don't require-- audience members who have a knowledge of the films, most notably, a hilarious whispering librarian gag during the "Ghostbusters" remake.

But while it works simply as a fun, funny entertainment, what makes "Be Kind Rewind" such a special piece of work is how successfully it demonstrates why movies are so important to so many of us. Gondry makes the argument that even the worst movies have some merit, and that whether a piece of art is life-changing or simply a diversion, they have a magic to them that is rarely replicated. This theme is present throughout the entire movie, but is perfectly encapsulated in its final sequence/image, one that unexpectedly brought to a tear to this cynic's eye. Perhaps it's because I'm a film dork, but I found Gondry's obvious love for the art form, and the culmination of Mike and Jerry's journey immensely moving. It's not really a "happy" ending, considering the imminent follow-up, but it's an immensely satisfying one. A substantial portion of the film is also devoted to giving props to small-town businesses, underdogs, and decrying gentrification, but it's obviously simultaneously alluding to low-budget films and expressing a preference towards anything that comes from a place of enthusiasm rather than those that are profit-driven.

Part of the movie's charm is that the actors don't seem to have been given much/any direction, and been allowed to do what they feel is right. This is just a guess on my part, but correct or not, the end result completely works in tandem with what Gondry's trying to do here. Jack Black has a tendency to irritate more high-brow audience members and delight stupider ones who like seeing fat men yell and fall down. Count me among the latter, though I'll admit my enthusiasm for the man has gone down a bit in recent years. Black may have his detractors and those who find him annoying, but the man has an undeniable energy and an apparent dedication when he's appearing in something he cares about (he looked like he was straining to muster up enthusiasm all throughout "Envy"), as he seems to here. He's having a blast and he's immensely fun to watch, even if Jerry never quite resembles an actual human being. With the combination of "Rewind" and "Margot at the Wedding," Black is obviously trying to branch out to more creative/interesting works, and not squarely focusing on potential cash cows.

Def is a little bit more of a mixed bag in my eyes. His propensity for mumbling, aimlessly wandering around and averting his eyes flies in the face of the supposed requirements for being an actor, but he's certainly always entertaining to watch, whether in "16 Blocks," during his concerts, or (especially) during his profane, paranoid rants in his appearance on "Real Time with Bill Maher." Here, he occasionally has some moments of enthusiasm or inspired mugging, but he mostly just shrugs, unenthusiastically mumbles and looks as if he just woke up, drove to the set and said "let's do this shit." Again, this is pure speculation, but he seems to just have an "eh, whatever" feel to him, and I was hoping for a little bit more, especially since I've always held out hope that he could be a very interesting actor with the right material.

A celebration of do-it-yourself artistry, "Be Kind Rewind" is significantly more complex and thoughtful than it initially appears at the outset, and some of the ideas contained therein are downright bold (such as Miss Falewicz's declaration about our right to re-invent our past through art). But lest I make it sound too stuffed with importance, I should make it clear that Gondry's vision is ultimately a love letter to films and the childlike wonder that they're capable of delivering, and often delivers the very sensation itself. Some audiences may understandably find themselves unable to go with it, but it's difficult to imagine anyone who truly and dearly loves the magic of movies not finding something to appreciate here. It's most emphatically a film more for the heart than the head, but really, how often do we get a movie, let alone a comedy, with this much genuine joy, appreciation and creativity? It may be mourning types of businesses, technology and filmmaking that are considered part of the past, but as long as there are still artists like Gondry out there making movies like this, there is hope for the future.


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