4 Stars Movies

Jack Black and Mos Def become misfit auteurs in Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind

Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind is a more mainstream effort than the personal and heartfelt The Science of Sleep, but still imbued with his signature handmade style and many of his particular (some might say peculiar) obsessions.

The premise is brilliant in its simplicity: a pair of misfit doofuses accidentally erase every tape in their retro video rental store, and decide to remake an eclectic selection of them from scratch. The considerable humor comes not just in how Mike (Mos Def) and Jerry (Jack Black) recreate shots, costumes, casting, and special effects, but also in how they must reconstruct entire plots and scenes from memory alone. If you had to condense a movie you hadn’t seen since childhood (say, for example, Ghostbusters) down to 20 minutes, equipped only with a camcorder and a budget of approximately $0, how would you do it? Jerry randomly coins the word “sweded” to describe their work, a puzzling term that isn’t even a pun, but spontaneous absurdity is a virtue in Gondry’s world.

Be Kind Rewind
Mos Def has mos’ def’ had enough of Tranny Jack

Desperation inspires them to find a means of artistic expression, something many people spend lifetimes daydreaming about but never seize for themselves. Much as how Tim Burton characterized Ed Wood in his eponymous biopic, Mike and Jerry have true amateurs’ supreme confidence in their total filmmaking abilities. Their own ingenuity and the power of moviemaking inspires them with the realization that they can do anything and the trust that people will like what they do. Also like Wood, each obstacle they encounter merely increases their creativity.

Even before the inciting incident of mass erasure, Jerry was already something of an outsider artist. He operated an auto shop with very creative notions of “repairing” cars into souped-up rocket-powered BatMobiles. His character is initially very unlikable, and evidently something of a misogynist. We see him taunt and nearly physically threaten a woman in the video store. Later, he reveals a longing for cutie Alma (Melonie Diaz) working in the local laundry, but when moviemaking provides him with the opportunity to interact with her, he treats her as would a little boy with a “No Girls Allowed” treehouse. But that’s not to imply there’s something cute about his attitude towards women; there appears to be a barely suppressed contempt and threat of violence.

Be Kind Rewind
How long until they get around to remaking Gummo and American Psycho?

An obvious paradox is that Be Kind Rewind is a film from a major motion picture studio that celebrates the indie spirit (not to mention fair use of copyrighted materials) and vilifies the venal movie biz executives that inevitably materialize with cease-and-decist orders. Speaking of venal movie execs, the movie’s home at New Line Cinema no doubt introduced several hardly canonical films like the New Line property Rush Hour 2 into Gondry’s script. The overabundance of New Line posters and VHS tapes in the set design bric-a-brac is something of a joke. While it’s funny that a run-down video store might still have ratty old Blast From the Past posters hanging around, would a competing mainstream neon-lit DVD store (Blockbuster in all but name) really shill for the long-forgotten Woo?

Be Kind Rewind is at its most brilliant when recreating classic (and some not-so-classic) moments from cinema history, so much so that everything else in the film feels like a distraction from the true delights. But the powerfully moving climax is the premiere screening of Mike and Jerry’s masterpiece, made in collaboration with their entire community. Their maturity as auteurs is marked by their first truly original work; their film within a film is a fictionalized musical biopic of Fats Waller. If only all actual musical biopics could be so wonderful!

Full disclosure: I first saw an advance screening of Be Kind Rewind on February 22, but as I was then employed by the movie company distributing the film, I decided not to post my thoughts. Regardless, I had nothing to do with making or marketing the film, and any opinions expressed above are mine alone.

Must Read:’s Be Kind Rewind archive

2 Stars Movies

Jake Kasdan spoofs the musical biopic in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

This blogger finds most so-called biopics wanting. The two to three hour feature film format is more akin to an essay or short story than a book, and as such is ill-equipped to sum up the entire life of a human being in more than just a string of highlights. Yet studios and filmmakers keep churning out parades of Classics Illustrated-like films that seem to exist mostly to grant actors Oscars and Golden Globes based on their abilities to imitate historical figures. The best of them ought more deservedly to be recognized for their abilities to create new characters from whole cloth.

But I reserve a special degree of hate for musical biopics; I’m looking at you, Bird, Ray, Walk the Line, La Vie en Rose, and El Cantante! They all seem to be forged from the same template: troubled genius beset by addiction, and the woman that loves him anyway. Comfortingly, the existence of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story proves I’m not alone in bemoaning this most pathetic genre. Walk Hard touches on each cliché in turn: physical infirmity (Cox is tragically “nose blind”), drugs, disapproving parent, dead sibling, etc.

John C. Reilly in Walk Hard The Dewey Cox Story
pssst… your bouffant is cramping my style

At its best, director and co-writer (with Judd Apatow) Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard is a history of popular music and narcotics from the 1950s on. The chameleonic Cox evolves with the times, beginning as a diamond-in-the-rough Ray Charles type, breaking through like a young Johnny Cash, becoming a pop superstar Elvis Presley, passing through a Bob Dylan folkie stage, and ending up as a Brian Wilson, an obsessive pop genius unable to complete his unachievable masterpiece (like Wilson’s own notorious Smile). The best running gag in the movie involves Cox’s succession of drug addictions (pot, cocaine, heroin, pills, and, well, everything…), which no doubt gave the MPAA a heart attack.

Lest I sound like I’m praising the film for being clever, here’s the bad news. The self-proclaimed “The Unbearably Long, Self-Indulgent Director’s Cut” DVD edition repeats the same jokes over and over. Its idea of hilarity is to repeat the name “Cox” as much as possible, which should give some hint as to the overall level of sophistication. Each character explicitly verbalizes and explicates the genre clichés and their own character types: the unsupportive starter wife, the doomed sibling, the venal music studio boss, and the disapproving father (whose refrain “The wrong kid died!” follows Cox through his life as both curse and motivation). Historical celebrity cameos are repeatedly signposted with their full names, lest anyone in the audience not catch on that the batch of four candy-colored lads from Liverpool noodling on sitars in an Indian ashram are, in fact, The Beatles. It is great fun, however, to see Jack Black, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Rudd, and Jack White do their best Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, and Elvis Presley, respectively.

John C. Reilly in Walk Hard The Dewey Cox Story
The 70s were a decade of taste and restraint

One little quibble: as the characters age, the makeup jobs are actually too good, far better than, say the outrageously silly age makeup for Jennifer Connelly and Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. This unfortunately ruins the genuinely funny gag that John C. Reilly plays Cox as a teenager with no attempt to hide his age. Why not carry it through to the end, with Reilly looking exactly the same when Cox is supposed to be 70?

Does anybody remember when Reilly was a serious actor? I’m happy for him that he’s no doubt building a significant nest egg off his recent string of lowbrow comedies (Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, etc.), but I hope we will see more of the fine actor of Sydney (aka Hard Eight), Boogie Nights, and The Hours.

3 Stars Movies

Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding

I very much loved writer/director Noah Baumbach’s previous film The Squid and The Whale, blessed with an excellent script and superb performances all around (especially by the underrated Jeff Daniels – heartbreaking in Pleasantville, and capable of humanizing no less an icon than George Washington in The Crossing).

Margot at the Wedding features another dysfunctional family, but so spectacularly so that the characters didn’t seem recognizably human to me. I don’t think the problem is as simple as merely identifying with the particulars of their lives (abusive father, celebrity lifestyle, etc.), for I also had little in common with the family in The Squid and The Whale.

Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Margot at the Wedding
It’s like De Palma’s Sisters meets Allen’s Interiors

Margot (Nicole Kidman) brings her son to her family home for her sister’s Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wedding to layabout Malcolm (Jack Black). Pauline is the sole family member insecure Margot can physically face, which she can only manage through passive aggressive games asserting her superiority. We barely glimpse a third sister and their mother, from whom Margot literally flees. They feud with the strangely savage neighbors, providing yet another set of characters for Margot to look down upon.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jack Black in Margot at the Wedding
Unlikely Jack Black Romantic Pairing (no. 845 in a series)

Margot’s favorite pastime is armchair psychoanalysis coupled with a kind of inverse hypochondria. Obsessed with detecting symptoms of mental illness in everyone around her (the irony being that she’s often correct), she fails to diagnose herself. She’s a fiction writer whose work bears more than a passing resemblance to her family’s history. Margot’s failure of imagination amounts to a kind of theft, and is a central theme of the movie. “How much of your work is autobiographical?” is no doubt a cutting question nearly every writer (including Noah Baumbach) hears at least once a day. Margot’s lover Dick (Ciarán Hinds) even uses it as a weapon to publicly attack her. It is cruel, but in her case, accurate.

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