Friday, February 29, 2008

Driving Mr. Gondry

I saw Be Kind Rewind three days before it was released at an advance screening that I arrived ridiculously early for, and I planned on posting this before it came out and being some sort of pioneer. Alas, it didn't happen, and I'm rather embarrassed that it took me so long to write my review. I think some part of me was putting it off. I really liked Be Kind Rewind, but I wanted desperately, with every fiber of my being, to love it. I didn't love it, and I think I've subconsciously been avoiding writing about it. So, here's my catharsis.

I know that having high expectations is really dangerous and even stupid, but I love films so much and get so excited that expectations come with the territory. I'm not ashamed of it either. I'd rather have high expectations than none at all. I'm a glass half-full kind of gal. But, I also know that sometimes it sets me up for disappointment. Then again, I'm pretty discerning when I watch films, so in spite of expectations, I still try to be as objective as possible. I'm always honest with my reaction, too. Just because I love a director, I won't say that I love his or her film unless I really do, and if I don't like it or even hate it, I'll admit that, however begrudgingly. It might make me expect more of a filmmaker, or it might make me give a film another shot if I don't like it as much as I hoped or thought I would (like There Will Be Blood), but I never lie about my opinion just to coincide with expectations. If a film's not great, it's not great. Expectations don't have much to do with that. That's the case with Be Kind Rewind. Sure, I expect more of Michel Gondry. Is that unfair? I don't think so. He's a genius. Genius begets genius, right? I also admire him so much that I'll give the film another chance. Maybe I'll like it more, maybe I won't, but I'm willing to stick with it because of my respect, passion and yes, even expectations. Ladies and gentlemen, my inner monologue.

That being said, on to the film! Writer/director Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind is really, really good, falling just short of greatness. It's funny, sweet, and surprisingly serious. This movie had such a good marketing campaign that it actually worked to its disadvantage. Rule number one: don't show all the best bits and the funniest moments in the trailer! Seriously, don't do that. The impact gets diminished. Also, it was marketed as a really playful romp, but that's not accurate. The tone is much more serious overall and often almost melancholy, and I just think people expected (there's that word again!) something else when they walked into the theater. I certainly did. I was taken aback by the somberness of it at times. Not that somber is bad, it's just not how it was packaged. Also, you're just sitting there waiting for them to make their "sweded" movies (cute term, Gondry). When they do, it's wonderful, even if most of it was in the trailer, but then the rest of the time noticeably lags. Those home movies are the moments when the film really comes alive.

For anyone who doesn't know, Be Kind Rewind is about an archaic, family-operated video store, competing with the chain behemoths and losing. The store is owned and run by Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover). Jerry (Jack Black) and Mos Def (Mike) are best friends and the store's only two employees. Actually, I'm not sure if Jerry is an actual employee or if he just loiters a lot. Anyway, Jerry gets preposterously (yet believably, because that's Jerry) electrocuted one night. He is now magnetized, so when Mr. Fletcher goes away, warning Mike to keep Jerry out (hmm, I guess he must not be an employee...?), Jerry of course enters the store and destroys all the tapes due to the magnetization. A loyal customer (one of the only), and Mr. Fletcher's apparent love interest (which never really goes anywhere), played by Mia Farrow comes in demanding Ghostbusters. When they say it's unavailable, she threatens to tell Mr. Fletcher unless they come up with it. Mike is terrified, because he's like Mr. Fletcher's son and doesn't want to let him down. So, they take the erased tapes and start remaking all the movies themselves, guerrilla-style.

The film is set in Passaic, New Jersey. Some of it was even shot there. The Passaic of the movie is a very old, dilapidated melting pot full of history. I don't know anything about Passaic, so I wouldn't dream of saying anything bad about it, but I'm not sure how much of what's seen is real or how much is really great production design. Whatever the case, the Passaic of the film looks like a place that time has forgotten. It's very run down, but it has a ton of character. The town's claim to fame (in the movie) is that it's the birthplace of jazz legend Fats Waller. The townspeople cherish that story and its accompanying notoriety. It connects them as a community. One of my problems with Be Kind Rewind is that Fats Waller is too prominent in the story, although I get the metaphorical and symbolic reasoning for it. It's not really that it's Fats Waller specifically; it could be anyone, because it's a representation of the spirit of the people. Still, I was sometimes annoyed by the constant Waller references.

Character development is another issue. Mike and Mr. Fletcher are given depth, but I feel like they only ever play one note, even if that note sounds pretty darn good. Jerry is just a nutcase who IS only one note, although he is very sweet at times and is genuinely moved by the reaction to the sweded movies. Melonie Diaz plays Alma, a girl they randomly get to help them with their movies when Jerry won't kiss a man. Alma is so hurriedly thrown into the story that we never learn much about her. They're great, interesting characters, but something's lacking. At end of the day, they seem like archetypes, not like fleshed-out human beings. I also think some of that stems from plot problems rather than character development. There are a lot of loose ends and plot holes, so they feel like incomplete people. And it's not just an open ending thing, where we're not supposed to know how it ends. It's a flaw of the script. There's some weird love triangle thing happening with Jerry, Mike, and Alma, and like I already said, I have no idea what's up with Mia Farrow's character and Mr. Fletcher. The plot seems very rushed, but the film often lags. It's very odd.

Gondry never quite decides on a tone. That threw me off a lot. One minute, it's light-hearted frivolity, and the next, it's grave melodrama. It shifted too much. Be Kind Rewind is so reminiscent of his music videos, in a good way because his spirit and creativity are always there, but also in a bad way, because the film sometimes seems like a haphazard series of vignettes, or it might have been better served by a shorter format. The film has a great message, and Gondry had such sincere, beautiful intentions, but his approach is a bit too heavy-handed at the end. There have been lots of comparisons to Frank Capra and Preston Sturges (thanks to Roeper for the rare Sturges shout-out!), although I think it's overall more Capra-esque. The comparisons stem from the film's feel-goodery (not a bad thing), which some people find corny, hence the term "Capracorn." Well, I think this ending might have even made Capra cringe. It's too precious for its own good.

Wow, I know this all sounds super-negative, but I really like Be Kind Rewind a lot. Those are my problems with it, but it has so many good points. It's a clever premise, for starters, and it's so relevant in a time when technology is obsolete the second it hits the stores. The sweded movies are genius. The Ghostbusters one is amazing, and so is the Driving Miss Daisy remake. I love Mike's reluctance to do it because of the racist aspects, and the result is sheer comic brilliance. Even though I've never seen Rush Hour 2 (I think it's interesting he chose the sequel), I loved that one, too. I can rest easily at night knowing I never have to see it now. What a load off my mind. The cinematography is quite astounding, especially in their movies and in the final big movie they make. How they make it look old-timey is so Gondry, and so wonderful. I think the script is pretty great, especially considering his issues with English. This is such a huge improvement over The Science of Sleep. He's finding his voice, and I'm willing to be patient. It's a great ride.

The acting is fantastic. Jack Black has rarely been better, which might not be saying a lot, but he can be terrific in the right role, and this is that role. He proves just how funny he is with smart material. Randomly, who else is sick of being chastised by Kung Fu Panda before every movie? Sorry, I had to bring it up. Mos Def is a phenomenal actor. He's really charming and a totally compelling leading man. I loved him in Be Kind Rewind. Danny Glover has sort of gotten to the Morgan Freeman plateau of his career, where he always plays the wise sage, although to be fair, Glover is more varied than Freeman. Morgan Freeman, for once, give someone bad advice! Please! Still, Glover's great at it, like Freeman is, and he brings a lot of heart to his role as Mr. Fletcher. Mia Farrow is adorable and nutty, and Melonie Diaz is awesome, even though her character is pretty pitiful. She's very talented and will be a big star. Here's a line from Roger Ebert's review: "Co-starring as their female leads in these movies is the fetching Alma (Melonie Diaz), who has the sexiest smile since Rosario Dawson." Oh, Ebert, you sly boots.

Ebert also talks a lot about the film's whimsy. Above his byline, he gives its definition: "Whimsy (n.): Playfully quaint or fanciful behavior or humor." He elaborates, wittily as usual, in his intro: "Michel Gondry's 'Be Kind Rewind' is whimsy with a capital W. No, it's WHIMSY in all caps. Make that all-caps italic boldface. Oh, never mind. I'm getting too whimsical. Maybe Gondry does, too. You'll have to decide for yourself. This is a movie that takes place in no possible world, which may be a shame, if not for the movie, then for possible worlds." I know I don't ever include parts of other reviews in my writing, but I thought this was worth including. I actually avoid reviews until after I've written my own, but the beginning of this one caught my attention, and I was alerted to the Melonie Diaz line. So, technically, I haven't read more than a paragraph. Still, about the whimsy, I totally get his point. It's true. The whimsy feels too forced at times. But the whimsy is what I love so much about Gondry. If only more filmmakers were whimsical.

That's what Be Kind Rewind is about - losing the magic and the whimsy of filmmaking. This film celebrates what filmmaking is supposed to be. It strips away all the big-budget trappings and focuses on movies with, as Mia Farrow's character salutes, "heart and soul." Be Kind Rewind is idealistic, to be sure, but there's nothing wrong with that. People are too pessimistic nowadays. I love, love, love the film's message. All students starting out in film school should be required to watch it. First, it would show them that they can make creative, inspired movies for less than nothing. And second, it would knock a few of them, the people who come in thinking they know everything (if you've been in film school, you know people like this), down off their high horses. The film captures the essence, spirit, and purity of filmmaking.

I love the choice of VHS as a primary, essential focus of Be Kind Rewind. I remember the transition to DVDs, and now that I've collected so many, I'm terrified of Blu-Ray creeping its way in, soon inevitably rendering DVDs obsolete, just like VHS. Oh, sure, you can cling to your DVD player, and they'll continue making players, but less and less. People probably didn't think Beta would ever become extinct. Be Kind Rewind makes all of the technological fuss seem so foolish, and it is. What does it matter when it comes to making films? You can have all the money and special effects in the world and still make garbage.

Be Kind Rewind's Passaic is straight out of a Capra or Sturges movie. It's much more Capra in the sense that the ending is a deliberate homage to one of his movies (I won't say which one, although someone else probably will), and it's all about the community. The film has a very wonderful, old-fashioned sensibility, which also makes it feel like Capra or Sturges. I love Frank Capra, and I positively worship Preston Sturges, but I won't pretend that Capra isn't sometimes sentimental to a fault. His idealism is too heavy-handed at times, like Be Kind Rewind, hence his own adjective. I know Sturges was more cynical, and it shows in his work, but he had a right to be cynical. It was an awful time. He had a more satirical approach to filmmaking, but he was also hopeful, insightful, and a humanist at heart, just like Capra.

Sullivan's Travels, one of Sturges' many masterpieces, is a direct influence on Gondry and Be Kind Rewind. It's about a filmmaker fed up with big budgets and guys in suits telling him what to do and all the claustrophobia of success and fame. He has everything, but he feels hollow. So, to research his next film, John Sullivan sets out on a mythic journey, with nothing but the clothes on his back. Sturges and Capra both believed in the power of cinema to move people and affect change. In Sullivan's Travels, Sturges addresses it directly in his poignant way. John Sullivan concludes about movies: "There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan." What a beautiful sentiment. Gondry echoes it faithfully.

The same can be said about movies in general. It's all some people have, and we shouldn't take them for granted. Cinema is the universal thread that connects us all. In spite of its shortcomings, Be Kind Rewind, filtered through the consistent genius of Michel Gondry, reminds us of the power of film and its ability to provoke thought or change, raise spirits, trigger laughter and tears, and transform and inspire people. Maybe a movie just makes you giggle. Or, maybe it only elicits a smile. Isn't that something special? As Preston Sturges-as-John Sullivan says, "It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan."

Rating: **** (out of 5)

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