Tuesday, June 08, 2010

“I will shoot you. And I know robot karate!”

Leaving aside monstrously budgeted franchises filled with *BOOSH* and/or *KA-KOW!* we turn to indie film sensibilities, where acoustic guitars and general quirkiness reign supreme. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you, its just another set of storytelling clichés that get used for good or for ill.

This intro kind of sucks, so let’s just get right into Michel Gondry’s 2008 film, Be Kind Rewind.

So, we’re in Passaic, New Jersey and a guy named Mike works in a failing video store that is still stocked only with VHS tapes. The store is in danger of closing, and our hero doesn’t want to let that happen since he’s convinced that the building was the birthplace of Jazz pianist Fats Waller (he’s totally wrong about this which is kind of the point, but whatever, it’s motivation enough). When his boss leaves town for a few days, he’s put in charge of the store. At the same time, his quirky sidekick best friend Jerry, who lives in a trailer in a junkyard next to some power lines from a power plant, tries to sabotage the plant one night and gets zapped. Instead of dying horribly, he gets magnetized and the next time he enters the video store *BAM* every tape gets wiped. In a desperate move, Mike & Jerry decide to film new versions of those films themselves. Surprisingly, these “Sweded” films (under the pretense that they were imported from Sweden) become a local hit and our two heroes become smalltime filmmakers until they get the attention of the big, bad film industry because of the questionable legality of these sweded films. Also, some developers want to come in and tear down the old shop to put up condos or something.

Mike: Mos Def plays our meek, slightly gullible (well, he IS convinced that Fats Waller was born in New Jersey) hero, and he’s a likable enough guy. He’s also the responsible one of the duo, though Jerry tends to walk over him when he gets over-excited.

Jerry Gerber: Jack Black doesn’t constantly play the standard “over-the-top Jack Black” character in this one. Sure, he’s still got a lot of moments where he hams it up royally and mugs for the camera, but most of those are done in the Sweded films. Jerry is a character that’s half funny and half annoying, since he’s a largely selfish guy with little regard for all the crap he’s putting Mike through and starts to get a swollen head when their bootlegs become a hit. On the other hand, he’s pretty damn funny in the Sweded films, which I guess makes him the badass of the movie.

Elroy Fletcher: Danny Glover (which makes this five Danny Glover movies in the span of three weeks) plays the owner of the store who’s trying to come to grips with modern technology pushing his business under (well, he does own a store renting VHS tapes in 2008, so saying he’s behind the times is an understatement). He goes on “vacation” for the purposes of doing research on successful video stores and their tricks, like DVDs. He does a good job with the character.

Alma: Melonie Diaz plays an employee of a nearby cleaners that gets drawn into the Sweded films since the guys realize they need a female character from time to time.

Miss Falewicz: Mia Farrow in a small role as a woman who rents Ghostbusters only to find out the tape’s blank. This starts the whole ball rolling.

Sigourney Weaver also shows up in a small but important cameo.

Directed by Michel Gondry (the Frenchman who directed the lauded Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a number of music videos) and cinematography by Ellen Kuras. Gondry knows his way around a camera quite well and makes the urban decay of New Jersey somewhat heroic. It’s hard to describe, but his visual style really celebrates things that are quirky and off-center. Best example: The Sweded films themselves, which are easily the best parts of the movie. Simply, its two guys with a VHS camera using makeshift props, cruddy special effects and costumes and more-or-less improvising the thing. They start with Ghostbusters and move on to stuff like The Lion King, Robocop, Driving Miss Daisy and so on. This culminates in documentary shot by Mike & Jerry about the life of Fats Waller done in the same Sweded guerrilla style, and you know what, it’s actually quite impressive.

Written by Michel Gondry, the film starts out with a quirky, slightly sci-fi premise which isn’t rare in indie films, but once you strip away the initial premise, this is a movie about making movies and the MacGyver-like ingenuity that goes along with not having a budget. Except Gondry has a budget and…well, it’s a metaphor, okay? The emphasis on Fats Waller is interesting too. Thematically, he’s a mostly forgotten musician who was huge in his lifetime, and that whole faded glory aspect ties in nicely with, you know, New Jersey (I’m not being facetious here, I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, so I’m a little familiar with urban decay).

Original music by Jean-Michel Bernard and a soundtrack that features Booker T & the MG’s, The Gap Band and naturally Fats Waller.

Be Kind Rewind certainly has that “indie movie quirk” hovering over it, but here it works in the film’s favor. Its certainly not perfect (the pacing in the beginning could be quicker) but overall, it’s a warm, satisfying love letter to the movie making spirit. So…recommended, just not enthusiastically.

And speaking of Sweded...

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