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Wednesday, June 25, 2008
  DVD Review: Be Kind Rewind

I was initially incredibly excited about Be Kind Rewind, beginning from the moment I first read about the concept – two dudes remake classic movies on no budget using only a video camera and their own cleverness – through my first viewing of the trailer. It seemed like a virtual can’t-miss proposition, especially with a director with the knack for incredible visuals like Frenchman Michel Gondry. I don’t know exactly where things went wrong with this disappointing misfire, but I have some ideas. And I’m going to tell you all about them.

Gondry is, for my money, one of the most talented visual stylists making films today. He cut his teeth making music videos, and some pretty awesome ones at that, directing a pile of clips for The White Stripes (including the memorable Lego-centric video for their breakthrough hit, 'Fell In Love With A Girl), as well as several artists known for boundary-pushing videos like Björk, The Chemical Brothers and the Foo Fighters. (I have a DVD of his music videos and it’s pretty uniformly amazing stuff.) His film debut was the little-seen oddity Human Nature, which was written by Being John Malkovich screenwriter and crazed genius Charlie Kaufman. They reteamed for 2004’s critical and cult hit Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a truly amazing piece of work that bears the distinction of being the last movie that moved me to tears. Never before and not since have I seen a filmmaker who can so accurately create truly dreamlike images on film – it’s like Gondry has evolved a direct pipeline to his subconscious that the rest of us humans lack.

Gondry followed up Eternal Sunshine with Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, a fun little concert film/documentary virtually bereft of any kind of crazy visual flourishes (a wise move for a doc). His next proper narrative film was The Science of Sleep (which he also wrote), which I also didn’t get around to seeing, but have not heard very many good things about. One of the knocks against that film was that it was all dreamy imagery with no substance, and that left to his own devices (i.e. without a proper screenwriter to guide him) Gondry sort of disappeared up his own ass. I can report after Be Kind Rewind – which Gondry also scripted – that this knock appears to be legitimate.

The plot of Be Kind Rewind is bizarrely convoluted and filled with more than a few things that strain the unspoken suspension-of-disbelief pact audiences usually make with movies. Mos Def plays a dull-witted clerk at a New Jersey corner store that, for reasons the film never really adequately explains, still rents VHS tapes. His jackass friend (Jack Black) accidentally magnetizes himself, in a ridiculous superhero-origin confluence of events that makes Spider-Man's radioactive spider-bite look like something realistic and plausible enough to make the cover of Scientific American, and erases every tape in the store while Mos Def’s boss is out of town. Natutally, they decide that the only reasonable way to deal with this crisis is to take a camcorder and reshoot as many of the erased movies as possible in the hopes that nobody notices, beginning with Ghostbusters.

It’s a great idea for a movie (though admittedly a pretty weird one), and with Gondry directing, there’s a lot of Jack Black and Mos Def ain't afraid of no ghostgenuinely amazing stuff to look at. His strength is in the inventive ways Def and Black shoot their movies on zero budget, with charmingly low-fi costumes and ingenious depth-perception gags in lieu of special effects. (The Ghostbusters sequence also benefits from the use of that movie’s theme, which will automatically improve just about anything. Just typing that sentence got it stuck in me head again, and that’s not necessarily a lament.)

Be Kind Rewind is very much Gondry’s love letter to movies, so it’s fitting that the best part is itself one of the oldest tricks in the movie book: the montage. In a remarkable single-shot take (there may be an edit or two hidden in there, I don’t know), Gondry has Black, Def and company ripping through several classic films from all eras, and, as if Gondry was trying specifically to win me over, sets the whole affair to The Gap Band’s classic slice of funk, ‘Early In The Morning.’ It’s a fantastic sequence, but unfortunately the movie that surrounds it pretty consistently comes up short.

One of Gondry’s big themes in Be Kind Rewind is that old things are usually better than new, and this nostalgia for the past and disdain for the future is illustrated most obviously in the VHS-to-DVD debate the film tangentially touches on. The small town where it all takes place also bills itself as the birthplace of a legendary jazz musician, and the older characters are often heard lamenting the passing of the Good Old Days. And while the film does have a lovingly analog feel to it, I’ve never bought into nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, and Gondry doesn’t do a very good job of presenting why he thinks progress is such a bad thing. I mean, I used to have a pretty ridiculous collection of VHS tapes before I upgraded to DVD, and guess what, DVD is simply the better format, and I don’t miss VHS one bit. I can appreciate Gondry’s point to a degree, but there’s something weirdly Luddite about his perspective that I couldn’t really get behind.

The words “charming” and “sweet” came to mind a lot while I was watching Be Kind Rewind, and some things, like the relationship between Mos Def and his boss/surrogate father (played by Danny Glover), and Def’s low-key romance with the adorable Melonie Diaz, really do work. But the flipside to that coin is that the film gets really hokey at times. Like, really hokey. The overarching plot in which the characters have to rally to save the charming little corner store from the evil condo developers (who initially raise some presumably valid concerns about the safety of the aging building that the film goes on to happily ignore) is just hackneyed and lazy. Gondry lays it on a little too thick with the Evil Corporate Types Who Just Don't Get It (including film studio execs who, upon learning about the low-rent remakes, crack down on the store for piracy; it’s an idea that sounds a lot cleverer in theory than Gondry’s script bears out). I realize there's little to nothing about Be Kind Rewind that's meant to resemble the real world you and I inhabit, but most of the characters – even the good guys – seem more like broad caricatures more than people.

The film really loses steam after the aforementioned studio crackdown, as from that point on the characters move from remaking classic movies to creating an original work about homegrown jazz great Fats Waller (though there's a funny gag involving Jack Black emerging in blackface to uncomfortable silence from his cast and crew). Without the conceit of the main characters remaking actual movies, Be Kind Rewind collapses into clichéd underdThis version of 'Boyz N The Hood' might actually be superior to the originalogs-must-overcome-the-odds stuff we’ve all seen a hundred times, only by that point any goodwill the film had bought with me had run out.

I realize by now that I’m probably leaving an impression that I disliked Be Kind Rewind more than I actually did. There’s some really good stuff in there, but it’s pretty much confined to the movies-within-a-movie stuff, and ultimately Gondry doesn’t go anywhere with his excellent premise. So if I sound like I’m ripping the film, it’s only because, aside from some flashes of genuine brilliance, it’s a missed opportunity. And sometimes the disappointment of a missed opportunity can smart a lot more than an out-and-out failure.



The first thing that struck me about the Be Kind Rewind DVD was the fact that the “sweded” films (so named because Def and Black initially claim their low-budget films are the Swedish import versions; an example of Gondry’s dreamy imagery melting into dreamy logic) are not included. In fairness, they are apparently all available in their entirety at, but why they're not on the DVD itself I have no idea. If ever a movie’s premise lent itself to DVD bonus features, it’s this one, and their absence is very strange indeed.

The only real extra is 'Passaic Mosaic,’ a 10-minute featurette on the town of Passaic, New Jersey, where the film is set and was shot. At first it seemed odd that the lone bonus feature was a piece about the town where the movie was made, but it’s actually quite engrossing. It paints a surprisingly honest picture of Passaic, seedy side and all, which you don't typically find in a 10-minute featurette. A look at the making of the film itself, done with similar depth, could have been something really special; as such it just feels more like another missed opportunity, which is something of a theme with this movie.

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