Archive for February 22, 2008

Be Kind Rewind

February 22, 2008

If you were around for the great VCR boom of the ’80s, and you were young enough to be awed at the wealth of possibilities — all those movies at the town video store, waiting for you to take them home — you may find it very hard to dislike Be Kind Rewind. Not just an ode to a dead format, Michel Gondry’s film passionately defends everything dead or dying in cinema: the communal experience, the heady notion that you can make your own movies and show them to a large and appreciative audience, the idea that art trumps commerce and beloved neighborhood treasure-chests of movies — whether mom-and-pop video stores or art-house theaters — will always be there. The very title — shared by the film’s dusty, failing video shop — is not only a nod to the stickers on videocassettes meant to guilt you into rewinding them before returning them; it’s an exhortation to go back in time, probably to the ’80s, when indie filmmakers seemingly emerged every month, and the landscape of the movie industry, despite it being the decade of Spielberg and Stallone, seemed a little kinder to artists.

The villain of Be Kind Rewind seems to be progress itself, or at least the wolf of corporate capitalism in the sheep’s clothing of “progress.” The titular shop, squatting in the bottom floor of a condemned building in Passaic, New Jersey, has seen better days. Its owner, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), has to raise some serious cash to ward off developers who want to demolish the building. Mr. Fletcher leaves for a little while, to spy on a competing chain store, and gives his loyal employee Mike (Mos Def) the run of the place. Mike has been ordered not to let Jerry (Jack Black), his wacko friend, into the shop. But Jerry blunders in anyway, after having been shocked at a power plant, and inadvertently magnetizes every videotape in the place, wiping them out.

Clearly, there’s only one solution: Mike and Jerry must make their own versions of the movies. They are only about twenty minutes long. They cost more to rent, because Mike and Jerry now have to pay for making these movies. Why are they so expensive, a customer asks. Because … they’re sweded, Jerry somehow comes up with. They are … uh … Swedish versions, and special. Soon, customers (including Mia Farrow as a batty old lady who just wants nice films) line up around the block to rent sweded movies, which always look like backyard camcorder quickies starring Mike and Jerry (and, eventually, other people in the neighborhood). I warn you not to take this plot literally for a moment. Be Kind Rewind is a fantasy-comedy, much in the vein of an ’80s fantasy-comedy; the scene in which Jerry gets electrocuted, for instance, could have been extracted intact from something like Weird Science … or Ghostbusters, the first movie to get the sweding treatment.

Jack Black doesn’t seem to belong in this movie’s scruffy unreality; as I’ve said before, usually admiringly, he’s never not Jack Black onscreen. Jerry could probably be played by just about anyone, and with Jack Black in the role, there’s very little pretense that he’s Jerry, a junkyard worker who believes that the FBI is gonna get him with radiation in his brain. But note how Michel Gondry uses him, as a found object. He lets Jack Black loose in a Michel Gondry movie and never quite lets him turn it into a Jack Black movie. Be Kind Rewind is more about the community, and its anchor is the vaguely melancholy Mike, who looks at Mr. Fletcher as a father figure and is fixated on the idea that Fats Waller was born in this building. Why? Because Mr. Fletcher told him so when he was a kid. Why Fats Waller? I think Gondry reveres him as a master improv artist; the sweded videos are nothing if not improv (it probably doesn’t hurt that Waller’s music is prominent on the soundtrack of Eraserhead, and Jerry is sort of a literal eraserhead).

The movie isn’t a laugh a minute. I doubt Gondry means it to be. The clips we see of the sweded videos are more touching than funny, and sometimes the comedy derives more from the ingenuity shown in the sweding, such as the brilliant idea of using a fan and some string to make a video look like a scratchy, flickery silent film. This technique is used in Mike and Jerry’s magnum opus, Fats Waller Was Born “Here” — the last word in quotations, signifying that even if he wasn’t literally born “here” in the building, his legacy has led to the revitalization of the neighborhood. Everyone pitches in to make and act in the film, and everyone comes on “opening night” to see themselves and their family and friends on “film.”

No other contemporary film artists — directors who stubbornly follow their own muses, with few concessions to the mainstream — are as playful or as good-hearted as Gondry. (He also got his start in the ’80s.) Be Kind Rewind is both artful and lovable, a rare combo indeed, and it’s a glowing valentine to creativity in opposition to commerce, using whatever shabby materials are at hand.

And in an interesting if predictable twist, more people have made their own sweded videos and posted them on YouTube than probably saw the movie in theaters. (There’s even, of course, a sweded version of Be Kind Rewind, the ultimate meta-compliment.) Some of them are inspired. Some of them are not. All of them are part of a kind of low-rent homegrown revolution that values seat-of-the-pants DIY artistry over sitting passively in front of the latest expensive studio turd. Fats Waller was reborn “here.”

Charlie Bartlett

February 22, 2008

Are teenagers today so hungry for a sympathetic ear that they’ll fall in line, cult-like, behind anyone who gives them drugs and listens to their complaints? That’s the impression left by Charlie Bartlett, which had been knocking around unreleased for a while until MGM, apparently hoping they had another Juno on their hands, dusted it off for a slow February weekend. Parts of Charlie Bartlett are enjoyable, especially Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as a high-school principal who hates his life. Too much of it, though, is pilfered from other films (good and bad), and what we’re left with is a mildly contemptuous portrait of teenagers, fleshed out in only the most rudimentary and predictable ways.

Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is a privileged lad who’s been booted out of any number of private schools. His modus operandi seems to be to ingratiate himself with his fellow students by “helping” them in illegal ways: his latest offense is making fake IDs. Charlie, who daydreams of being beloved by masses of students chanting his name, quickly figures out how to fit in at his new public school: he gets psychiatric meds from various shrinks and sells them to students while encouraging them to vent about their issues. (The “therapy” scenes unfold in adjoining toilet stalls, a parody of a confessional, with Charlie as priest.) The movie, directed by former editor Jon Poll from a script by first-timer Gustin Nash, clearly disapproves of medicating students and deplores the society that feeds them Ritalin to extract their rebellious spirit. Charlie, after all, is only doing what the kids’ parents would pay to have done professionally if they could afford it.

It’s too bad that the screenplay follows the same track as many of Gustin Nash’s favorite films. Charlie himself is Ferris Bueller, Max Fischer, Harold Chasen, Lloyd Dobler, take your pick of cool misfits. He falls in love with the principal’s daughter (Kat Dennings). He turns the school bully (Tyler Hilton, looking like a butch version of Morrissey) into his business partner in his pharmacological endeavors. His mom (Hope Davis) is Xanaxed (and moneyed) out of reality. He befriends a mentally challenged kid and hires him as muscle. If there’s an original voice here, it gets lost in the cacophony of previous original voices Nash cribs from.

The actors, including the sometimes-annoying Yelchin, mostly take their cue from the deadpan style of Wes Anderson films, which works better in Wes Anderson films. The only person in the movie who suggests real, painful experience is Downey’s Principal Gardner. Downey speaks very quietly and precisely and with a covert wit that tells you that Gardner, a former history teacher, really isn’t cut out for a disciplinarian role. Gardner watches the students dyspeptically on a camera system, which provides the film’s third-act conflict (this time cribbed from Do the Right Thing). We get it: Kids are drugged and spied on to prevent another Columbine, and people like Gardner, who remember what they were like as teenagers, meekly acquiesce to the administration. Downey calmly stays in the moment, as he’s always done, and carries his scenes effortlessly.

A movie that focused on the prickly relationship between Gardner and his daughter, who awkwardly attends his school, would’ve been a different movie but a better one. Charlie Bartlett simply isn’t unique or interesting enough in itself to play in the same league as its betters; it doesn’t even have the controversially stylized dialogue of Juno. Despite the occasional insight, it’s a rather bland affair, a narcissist’s wish-fulfillment that softens every conflict and deadens emotion as effectively as Charlie’s prescriptions or Gardner’s desk bottle of booze. Though it gives lip service to Rebellion and Being Yourself, it’s essentially a megalomaniacal nerd’s dream of having people chant his name, stand in line to talk to him, and do whatever he says without question. Charlie Bartlett comes out for something new and weird: geek fascism.