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Monday, December 11

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Be Kind Rewind

The latest film from visionary director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep) is not, as the trailers would have you believe, a film about two video store clerks remaking classic movies... not exactly. Instead, it's about two men who discover they have a passion and certain knack for making their own films. With absolutely no budget and armed only with their own self-generated creativity, Jerry (Jack Black) and Mike (Mos Def) invent a style of filmmaking that not only doesn't require much knowledge of the process, it also doesn't even demand that you know the film you're remaking all that well. But in a far more interesting way, Gondry is interested in people creating their own reality when the one they live in doesn't suit them. If you really extend that metaphor, you could look at this film as a comment on the world we're living in today, but I think Gondry is more interested in people making small adjustments in the truth of their world than the global picture.

Despite the presence of Jack Black sporting a pair of thick, oversized glasses, Be Kind Rewind is not simply a showcase for the comic actor to cut loose all of his standard-issue Jack Black-isms. Gondry infuses his film with a darker edge than you might expect. Jerry and Mike are childhood friends living in Passaic, New Jersey, and neither one have much money or anything resembling a life. Jerry lives in a small trailer near some scary-looking power lines that he's pretty sure are nuking his brain, while Mike works at a nearby video store owned by Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) that only rents VHS tapes of movies (brilliantly limiting what films might be available for remaking). Establishing early on that these two men aren't cinephiles, the film instead focuses on Fletcher's obsession with jazz musician Fats Waller, whom Fletcher says was born in the same building where his video store in now located. Getting pressured to sell his store in the interest of the neighborhood's rapid gentrification, Fletcher tells his two friends that he's going to take a memorial trip to locations key to Waller's life and death and is leaving Mike in charge.

Through means that are far too funny to reveal here, Jerry become magnetized shortly after Fletcher's departure and erases every film in the store. When a customer (Mia Farrow) who knows Fletcher comes in to rent a movie, the boys concoct a scheme to remake the film and rent it to her the next day. The process is deemed "Sweding" because (according to Mike and Jerry) the customized tapes are imports from Sweden. Makes sense. The films aren't so much remakes as they are reductions, each running about 20 minutes long, and I can't wait for the DVD of Be Kind Rewind to see if any complete Sweded films are included. Ghostbusters, Robocop, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Driving Miss Daisy, The Lion King, Rush Hour 3, Boyz N Da Hood and the original King Kong are all films we get a taste of, and each one is glorious. There's a level of creativity shown by these characters that is admirable, especially in terms of how they handle the special effects and costuming. The boys bring Alma (Melonie Diaz) on board to help with female roles and production design, and pretty soon there is a line around the block for Sweded movies, bring in more money to the store than it has ever seen. Even when the neighborhood realizes that these films are just Jerry and Mike productions, they still find them hopelessly entertaining. Good news for the fellas since that means they have bigger budgets and crews for their productions, but bad news when the Hollywood lawyers find out about their little operation.

The final act of Be Kind Rewind is perhaps even more interesting to would-be filmmakers than any of the Sweding material, as the neighborhood joins forces to make its first original film. Thankfully, this is not two hours of Jack Black cutting loose; it's better than that. Black shows subtlety in his performance that he's never really mustered before this film. Jerry actually begins to get an ego for the first time in his life as his career as an actor blossoms (he is the lead in all of the Sweded films), and the resulting fame changes him into a version of a spoiled Hollywood star. Writer-director Gondry is paying tribute to the way he (a man in his mid-40s) grew up discovering movies: on degraded, sometimes full-frame videotape. He is reminding filmmakers that they have a unique opportunity to create realities that simply don't exist, all for the betterment and enjoyment of millions of people worldwide. To him, having the opportunity to make a wonderfully entertaining film is a gift that should not be squandered. His version of Passaic is a dreary, sad place into which Mike and Jerry inject a great deal of almost childlike wonder and excitement. Hopefully this is the spark that pushes all great filmmakers to make movies. It reminded me of those kids who remade Raiders of the Lost Ark so many years ago and created something almost more entertaining because they didn't have the resources at the disposal of Spielberg and Lucas. Be Kind Rewind does not turn out to be what you think it will; much like the Sweded films in the movie — it turns out better.

For my interview with Be Kind Rewind director Michel Gondry, visit Ain't It Cool News.

Vantage Point

Some ideas are so crazy they just might work. Welcome to Vantage Point, a film that hasn't got a clue that the expression "less is more" even exits. It exists solely because it believes that if you show us the same thing over and over (and over and over) and over and over again, we'll learn a little bit more about the world around us with each showing. The conceit of this star-studded work is that by giving us about 20 minutes of an earth-shattering event from the points of view of various key players in said events, an audience will be drawn slowly into the layered plot until a great mystery is revealed. And you know what? That's exactly what happens. Normally I'd simply look at the cast of this kind of film and assume that there are simply too many good actors here for this to be any damn good, and I'd happily be proven wrong. This is in no way as sophisticated a film as the works of, say, Alejandro Gonzáez Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams), but Vantage Point's goal aren't quite as lofty. It wants to tell its tale of an assassination attempt on the President of the United States (William Hurt) in a unique way, and on that level, it succeeds.

Set in small city in Spain, the film takes place during the opening remarks of what is said to be a summit between the Western World and the Arab nations, where a treaty of some sort will be signed to end all terrorism (or something like that). As he's about to make his remarks in a crowded square surrounded by high buildings (a situation the Secret Service would never let happen, FYI), the president is shot and quickly whisked away in an ambulance moments before a bomb goes off in the square. We see this events first from the inside the remote control room of a CNN-like news organization, led by Sigourney Weaver. They have a reporter in the square who appears to die in the blast. Then the film actually rewinds, and shows us essentially the same 20 minutes from the perspective of a Secret Service agent (Dennis Quaid), who has only just returned to duty after saving the president's life a year earlier, and the layers to this complicated plot begin to peel back. Does he spot the shooter? Does a Spanish suspect he tackles hold the key to the shooting? Does an American tourist (Forrest Whitaker) and his video camera hold the key to unlocking this mystery? Then the film rewinds again to show us Whitaker's perspective, then the suspect's, then a little girl and her mother, then the president's — until eight vantage points are revealed. It sounds redundant, but most of the time it's captivating.

The film doesn't quite find the means to spend its entire 90-minute length using this gimmick; it lasts about an hour before it simply gives in to more traditional storytelling. But while it's in play, the device is effective. I won't argue with those who find the sheer number of coincidental run-ins a bit too convenient, especially toward the end of the film. But I defy you not to have some amount of fun watching Vantage Point. Quaid is the sentimental favorite here, playing the emotionally and physically wounded soldier who still has PTSD flashes, but overcomes them to play a decaffeinated version of Jack Bauer. He's the only one in the film who acts and reacts as I believe a real person in his situation might. He's our ears and eyes, and he does a solid job pulling us through this sometimes implausible story. Vantage Point never stops moving. If it gave you even a minute's peace, you would probably start to think about it a little too hard and get really mad at it for jerking you around. But as it is constructed and executed, it's wheelbarrows full of dumb fun.

Charlie Bartlett

This small little film might be the one I've struggled over more than anything else I've seen so far this year. It's a modest work with bold intentions and some of the finest performances I've seen all year, but it's not the kind of movie that's particularly easy to love. Admire? Without question. But not love. Above all else, the imperfect film serves as a calling card for the vastly talented young star Anton Yelchin, and if Charlie Bartlett does little else in the grand scheme of cinema history, it will be remembered for the first memorable instance that Yelchin was allowed to show his range in such an impressive way. I've been admiring Yelchin's work for many years, as the young man in Hearts of Atlantis opposite Anthony Hopkins, as Hank Azaria's son in "Huff" and as the sweet-hearted victim in Alpha Dog. If I can throw in one more fantastic role, although the film wasn't that great, Yelchin worked wonders as Diane Lane's son in Fierce People a couple years back. And naturally I'm curious how he'll transform the role of Chekov in next year's Star Trek relaunch.

The other standout in Charlie Bartlett should come as no surprise. Robert Downey Jr. has been putting forth great performances since... well, forever. And if they weren't great, they were at least memorable. Here he plays a high school principal that someone manages to garner the respect of absolutely no one in the student body. His problem isn't that he's too strict or too out of touch with the young people; his problem is that often times he's too much like them. You could make an entire film about his character and still have material left over. You almost get the sense that his best days were in high school, and perhaps he thought when choosing careers that he could somehow recapture his fame or fun times by returning to high school as an administrator. Instead what he has is a daughter, Susan (Kat Dennings from The 40-Year-Old Virgin and a brief stint on "E.R." two years ago), no wife, and a growing drinking problem that at one point in the recent past involved waving a gun around while loaded (him and the gun).

The character of Charlie is fascinating. He comes from money. His loving but completely useless mother (a funny as hell Hope Davis) lets her son rule the roost while dad is in white-collar jail. He's gotten kicked out of most private schools for running some kind of illegal or unethical business not for the money but to get the other kids to like him. He has a psychiatrist on retention who seems all-too willing to whip out the old prescription pad out and scribble out a variety of behavioral drugs for Charlie. After being the victim of an unprovoked beating on his first day of public school, Charlie quickly comes up with his latest scheme: convince his doctors that he's in need of many different prescription drugs. He collects the drugs and sells them to his fellow students, but only after he has impromptu therapy session with them in the men's room to determine what drugs they need to cope with their mental ailments. Naturally Charlie falls hard for Susan long before he finds out their connection.

Within a single scene, Yelchin can ooze gentlemanly charm and quickly convert to obnoxious prankster or serious mental case. All those years of practice apparently paid off. With his feature debut, director Jon Poll has a lot of fun with the Charlie character, especially in his tense conversations with Downey. These two are cut from the same cloth, but neither will admit it. Both are painfully lonely men, and both are hoping that a solid relationship with Susan will help change that. The problems with Charlie Bartlett have mostly to do with Gustin Nash's uneven script — which paints the lead character as something of a folk hero to the students when, in fact, the kid may be seriously suffering from mental illness — never really let me in the way I wanted it to. And while that may be by design, I don't think so. Charlie Bartlett is the kind of movie that needs its audience on its side, and I think the filmmakers believe that they have made something accessible to most audiences. It didn't feel that way to me. If I felt empathy for a character, it was because the individual performances were so strong that I didn't have a choice. There also are some vague messages about being yourself, defying authority, suicide, and adult misbehavior that fall varying degrees of flat, and that's too bad, because it's the only thing that kept this movie from being great. Despite its cool exterior, Charlie Bartlett is exceedingly watchable and more often than not, exceedingly entertaining, even as it sabotages itself even when it's succeeding. All Downey completists should not miss this film; and those contemplating becoming Yelchin scholars, mark this film as his major transition film into the spotlight. If nothing else, this movie is extremely memorable.

The Signal

I once had a person, someone whose opinion on horror around the world I regard very highly, tell me about entire sub-genre of horror films in Japan was based solely on the idea of a kind of mass hypnosis. He said that for some reason the Japanese feared this more than anything else (well, this and pale-faced ghost children, apparently), and that films about mind control were very big in that country. I don't know if this is true, but when I see trailers like that for M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening or watch films like this week's The Signal, I begin to wonder if this paranoia has now extended to this side of the Pacific. The idea of mind control certainly isn't a new one in horror and sci-fi, but the idea of ordinary citizens with no particular violent tendencies suddenly turning into raging maniacs does seem to be making its way into our collective cinematic mindset.

More than any other film, The Signal reminds me of George Romero's The Crazies, in which some seemingly harmless phenomenon (in this case, a strange television signal) sets people on random killing sprees. Only, in most cases, these maniacs aren't running around screaming with their eyes bulging out of their heads. In many cases, they appear to be aware and functioning, operating under some sort of twisted logic. The signal seems to have literally replaced their good thoughts with bad. They are delusional, and they respond to threatening delusions as if they were real. It's almost worst than just snapping because you can actually reason with these people before they snap your neck. The film opens with a young couple, Ben and Mya (Justin Welborn and Anessa Ramsey), in bed just as the movie they are watching switches over the "the signal." It doesn't take us long to figure out that Mya is cheating on someone (turns out it's her husband) by sleeping with this man. She's not happy in her marriage, and Ben proposes that the two of them run off together. The idea is more than tempting to her, but she still leaves. Meanwhile the husband, Lewis (AJ Bowen) is at home doing what he does best — drinking with his buddies, watching sports and getting more and more pissed that his wife isn't home. Shortly after she returns (and after a thorough grilling from Lewis), the signal takes its affect in the household, and all hell breaks loose in their apartment and in the entire building. There's a guy with hedge clippers running around who is particularly memorable.

A lot of unnecessary attention has been placed on the fact that The Signal has three writer-directors (David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry), each of whom directed one of the three segments that make up this film. But other than a slightly less serious middle section, The Signal doesn't come across as something pieced together or disjointed. And while it seems slightly silly that this movie took three people to direct, it doesn't wreck what turns out to be a fairly entertaining exercise in paranoia-fueled brutality. I lost track at the number of times characters took crushing blows to the head, and each one hurt me almost as much as it hurt them, I swear.

Much of the film follows both Lewis and Ben's search for Mya, who is in fact headed for the train station where Ben told her to meet him to run away. Naturally these two men meet face to face eventually and square off in an inspired bit of mind-fuckery involving the identities of the two. What I wasn't as interested in is the aforementioned comedic bits in the film's second act, which focuses on a couple preparing for a New Year's Eve party. I'm sure many will find Scott Poythress' Clark character very funny, but I found him distracting and not particularly amusing. He even provides the film's only attempt at explaining what's going on with the signal, but I didn't find this information useful or interesting. He's goofball comic relief in a film that didn't need humor or relief from its jet-propelled plot. The Signal's haunting final section more than makes up for this interruption in tone. I also liked the way the film's plot often doubled back on itself, filling in gaps in the plot at exactly the right moment when that information is needed. Even with its flaws, The Signal is a strong horror effort that gives you hope that young filmmakers are out there still trying to make something a little different than run-of-the-mill slasher stuff. There are slightly loftier ideas at play here, but the film still remembers that what we came for are blood and boatloads of tension.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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