Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Mos Def, Jack Black, Melonie Diaz, Danny Glover, Mia Farrow, Sigourney Weaver, Irv Gooch, Marcus Carl Franklin, Chandler Parker, Arjay Smith, Blake Hightower, Amir Ali Said
Written by: Michel Gondry
Directed by: Michel Gondry
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual references
Running Time: 101
Date: 01/20/2008
IMDB

Be Kind Rewind (2008)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Killing the Video Star

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Michel Gondry's fourth feature film, and his second without the writer Charlie Kaufman, takes a fairly traditional Hollywood arc in its journey from beginning to middle to end. But if you consider the marvelous idea behind the film and all the various layers of things it has to say about us as movie viewers, that three-act structure couldn't be more appropriate.

In Be Kind Rewind, Mos Def stars as Mike, the mumbling, tentative second-in-command at a run-down New Jersey video store. It's so dilapidated and destitute that it still rents VHS tapes. Not that it matters: its regular customers don't appear to own DVD players anyway. Jack Black co-stars as Mike's best friend and more boisterous sidekick Jerry, who works at an auto yard near a buzzing power plant.

While the store's owner Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) is away, Jerry becomes magnetized and manages to erase every tape in the store. Unfortunately one of Mr. Fletcher's best friends and best customers, Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow), wishes to rent Ghostbusters. Unable to find a replacement VHS copy, Mike and Jerry decide to film the movie again themselves.

Of course, their homemade movie becomes a hit, and there are requests for more movies. The boys bring aboard a pretty girl, Alma (Melonie Diaz), to play all the female love interests. The filmmakers coin the term "sweded" to describe the new films, and they get to work on Rush Hour 2, Robocop, Driving Miss Daisy, as well as animated films (The Lion King), documentaries (When We Were Kings) and black-and-white films (King Kong).

During their little productions, Be Kind Rewind oozes a kind of low-rent dream-factory optimism. Mike and Jerry conjure up all kinds of creative solutions to technical problems; even though they are stealing plots and characters, their films are as original and personal as anything made professionally. But as they film, something like a mini-Hollywood history emerges. Although there's a strange symmetry to the mixed race cast, fitting perfectly into several Hollywood genres (Men in Black, Rush Hour 2, Driving Miss Daisy, etc.), Mike notices that Jerry most often gets to play the hero and kiss the girl. Jerry also becomes something of a local celebrity, signing autographs on his way to the shop and becoming more and more difficult, such as demanding a trailer. "You already have a trailer," Mike tells him, referring to Jerry's humble dwelling near the auto yard.

Other ideas come up. Mike and Jerry's success depends upon their intimate knowledge of the films in question, since the originals have been erased. They have apparently watched these films dozens of times, and know them well enough to re-create them from memory. The concept of "favorite films" comes up again and again, the idea that a certain film can tune into a certain person's consciousness. According to Gondry, it's a pure love affair, requited and undiluted. (Anyone who sees this film will probably find a warm and fuzzy reference to one of their favorites, even if it's just a video box sitting on a shelf.)

Gondry also latches on to the idea of videotape as opposed to digital video. Videotape is a generation closer to film itself, consisting of two reels and a strip of plastic tape wound from one to the other across a "head." With videotape, you can film, pop out the tape and play it right back in a VCR, whereas digital requires one or two more steps. Gondry's filmmakers also shoot their films in sequence, without editing (they have no editing equipment), giving them an organic, spontaneous feel.

The other shoe drops when Hollywood lawyers arrive, terrified of losing a tiny fraction of their mega-profits due to "pirates" like Mike and Jerry. Sigourney Weaver -- coincidentally the co-star of Ghostbusters -- plays the lead killjoy. "It's not like we're the bad guys here," she says incredulously as a steamroller crushes all the sweded tapes while the angry fans watch.

In the third act, the neighborhood decides to make an "original" film, a biopic about Fats Waller, whom Mike believes lived in the building that now houses the video store. Even though the larger forces of commerce and progress have already won, in Gondry's world, the little guy with the creative voice can still emerge victorious. Be Kind Rewind depends on a refreshing kind of naïveté, like the hero of Ed Wood (1994), but without Tim Burton's awareness of his subject.

This childlike wonder is both a gift and a hindrance. It prevents Gondry from fully exploring Alma's character, for example. Diaz plays her as fiery and independent, which helps, but she's still just "the girl." The film relies too often on montage, as creative and joyous as they are, and too much on a kind of simpleminded faith, when the movie is clearly so savvy about other aspects. But while these things bothered me during the film, my memory of it has grown more and more fond. It's one of those rare experiences that remind us not exactly why we love movies, but how we love them.

(Note: The big rival, neighborhood video store that rents DVDs is called "West Coast Video," which, ironically, is the name of the video store I worked for as a teenager.)