Background: Well made comedies have a tendency to focus on a limited number of characters, making the audience care about the protagonists before putting them in a variety of circumstances that invoke our funny bone. While this truism is not always the case, it is quite common and one of the reasons why Hollywood uses certain popular actors as a shortcut, as if to eliminate the need for these insights by virtue of the audience already having some level of affection for them. Such was the case with quirky comedy Be Kind Rewind I watched twice yesterday for this review; the first for my enjoyment and the second for this review.
Movie: Be Kind Rewind is the latest quirky outing of French director Michel Gondry, a guy I know best from his music videos and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He sets up a circumstance where urban renewal meets historical demands, the resulting chaos towards the established order of things predictable but not without some appeal along the way. His background Mulligan this time is promoting the life & death of legendary "Fats" Waller, an important musical icon many decades ago but done in such a way that I was always left wondering if the subtext was more important than the major elements of the movie itself. See, the story is about a small mom & pop video store like many of us older folks grew up with years ago. Far from the supersized chains that offer dozens of copies on release day (Blockbuster and Hollywood Video), many people still remember the days when a new movie on VHS/Beta would cost ~$100 each and the landscape was literally littered with video stores that faded out with time. The store in question this time is the Be Kind Rewind store in Passaic, NJ; suggested as the birthplace of "Fats" though only believed by the owner, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover in a phone in roll), and his hired help, Mike (Mos Def).
The store is located in a rundown part of the city, displaying urban blight as a cause of trouble for the area; gang graffiti common to the area. Fletcher is a hold out in that he stokes his shelves only with well worn copies of VHS tapes, believing that the residents were too poor to have ever ventured into the realm of DVD despite the megastore a few blocks away doing a seemingly thriving business in them. He knows his stuff when it comes to movies though and served a small but dedicated band of diehard tape aficionados, but the time is coming when it will all end. He is confronted by two city bureaucrats that have given him a 60 day ultimatum to bring his building up to code or they will tear it down. Little does he realize, the well meaning city employees already have large scale plans to tear it down, knowing Fletcher can't come up with the expensive repair money and praising their foresight for ushering in a new day of renewal for that part of the city.
Mike is something akin to Dante Hicks of the Kevin Smith movie Clerks too, a decent guy that really tries to do the right thing but is bland without his best pal, in this case being conspiracy theorist Jerry (Jack Black); a guy that lacks the coherency of Randal Graves (again from Clerks) but makes up for it with an obsessive desire to fix things despite all odds. Fletcher goes off for a trip and leaves Mike in charge, the weak side plot given lip service while the real fun begins with the odd pair. Jerry tries to enlist Mike in destroying the small electric company relay station across the way (located conveniently next to Jerry's beat up trailer and car repair/junk shop) when the crazy guy is left to fend for himself with his grappling hook. Mike left him when he realized that Fletcher's message was simple but clear, keep Jerry away from the store. Jerry is caught up in a freakish explosion of electricity during his attempt to play domestic terrorist and his now-magnetized body proceeds to erase all the tapes in the shop the next morning when he tells Mike about his exploits.
The goofy customers come in to rent titles, Mike finding out the next day that all of the tapes are wiped clean, and in a desperate move to prove himself to Fletcher, he goes along with Jerry's idea to remake shorter versions of the flicks with them as the leads. The process of "Sweding" them (claiming the movies are Swedish versions) to the relatively ignorant customers leads to claims of something new offered by the store, drawing in a ton of new customers who subscribe to the theory that word of mouth viral marketing is the best way to live their lives. Needless to say, the best moments of the movie are the pair creatively remaking their own versions of movies such as Robcop, Ghostbusters, Rush Hour 2 and the like. Inevitably, this draws the attention of the movie industry watchdogs (a cameo by Sigourney Weaver went nowhere) and provides the dramatic turning point of the show where the limited chuckles provide some minor payoff to those of us patient enough to keep up.
First off, I like Jack Black and think the world of his limited acting range. His over the top character provides the movie with a focal point and while it simply didn't work, I could see why trying to translate his cult following into box office success would be rubber stamped by the producers. Mos Def was so bland though that you have to wonder why the two became such good friends; the adage about opposites attracting not typically believable without at least some flashback sequence telling the audience why. Neither of them were particularly likeable protagonists either; Jerry's expedition into the power relay station enough to push him beyond the usual harmless loser full of conspiracy theories guy into a genuine menace to society. Glover's role as the wistful owner was downplayed too much as well, the revelation regarding his obsession with "Fats" Waller adding depth but not anything worthy of the result, and other small roles like that of Mia Farrow and such just struck me as writing on the fly (much like the Sweded movies being made). The flick was okay the first time I watched it but the second time just left me cold so I rated it as a Rent It.
Picture: Be Kind Rewind was presented in a color widescreen as shot by director Michel Gondry in the 2.35:1 ratio advertised. This blu-ray version was presented in the VC-1 codec with the video bitrate hovering around the 14 Mbps area most of the time, far short of most releases these days, impacting the picture more than a little but still significantly better than the SD trailer I had to compare it to. The enhanced detail of the 1080p resolution, the rich blacks of the night scenes, and the superior contrasts were offset by the overall fuzzy nature of the transfer (however slight), some of Gondry's cinematic tricks, and washed out look of the colors, perhaps done intentionally by the director but not making it look like the type of flick that truly uses the blu-ray format as much as it could. If you're familiar with the director's past works, you'll understand his approach and if you're not, you'll find it to be hit or miss with little middle ground to speak of.
Sound: The audio was presented in a 7.1 DTS-HD using the usual 48 kHz and a 1.5 Mbps audio bitrate. The audio was another area heavy with style over substance, this version striking me as closest to the director's intent of any to date; mimicking the low budget nature of the movie while giving a pretty solid front stage for those of you that care. The rear speakers rarely got a workout except in a handful of spots (typically related to the special effects involving Jerry's condition or a couple of musical interludes) but the bass wasn't bad. The vocals were clear, the music okay (most notably using the Ghostbusters theme a few times fairly well), and the special effects very limited but all of it appropriate for the nature of the release.
Extras: The one area where the blu-ray version outshines the SD version was with the inclusion of a number of extras (that the cynic in me suggests will become available in SD in a future double dip edition); though they were all mastered in 480i with a 2.0 DTS using a non-standard 255 Kbps audio bitrate. The first extra was a 10:22 minute long feature called Passaic Mosaic where a bunch of locals from the town were interviewed to provide some background of the town. It was largely one of those "slice of life" efforts that allowed the actors and director to get involved with the people of the area. The next extra was a 6:41 minute long short with director Michel Gondry and "Booker T" where the director's added in train scene (that absolutely did not fit the continuity of the Fletcher character) was examined thanks to the bluesmen involved in it. Then came a song improvisational effort by Jack Black and Mos Def lasting 4:58 minutes with the two making up the Sweded musical efforts for the show outside; both hamming it up substantially. Then was an interview with Michel Gondry and Jack Black, Jack looking "like Sting from Dune" that lasted 6:03 minutes. It showed Jack with a lot less energy, almost as if he truly just woke up, and Gondry sharing style tips in modern cinema (like Sweding). There was then the full 11:28 minute long short Fats was Born Here from the movie, complete with cheap effects and a musical score without narration. The second page of extras included my favorite of the bunch though, a 33:20 minute long Making of Be Kind Rewind that seemed a lot like the generic BTS you get from movies; the director and actors getting the vast lion's share of screen time and even explaining some of the stuff going on that some people, myself included, would find too obscure for a general audience. There were clips from the making of the flick but most of it involved setting up scenes and such, There was also the theatrical trailer and a live musical tribute to Fats Waller by the director, Mos Def, and the guy in charge of the music (Jean-Michel Renard) that lasted 6:06 minutes. It definitely showed Mos Def's abilities better than the movie itself and I would have liked more of it. The only other "extra" was the animated menus that were kind of retro-cute.
Final Thoughts: Be Kind Rewind is the type of movie best suited for those that are into the insider jokes of the film making business and the quirks of the creative mind of Michel Gondry more than anyone else. I wish there had been more of an attempt to make a comedy that mainstream audiences would be able to appreciate but it fell flat so often, the characters were typically unrealized (saying they were two dimensional would be extremely generous) and in great need of exposition, and the ending was lukewarm at best; eschewing a feel good audience pleaser for a realistic cold shower that came across much like the Sweded efforts of Jerry & Mike. It was not a terrible flick but the idea offered up such a wealth of possibilities that I felt severe disappointment in what resulted, the handling of the blu-ray edition made all the worse for the lackadaisical manner in which the show was presented.