Melonie Diaz and Jack Black in Be Kind Rewind
Melonie Diaz and Jack Black on the set of King Kong in Be Kind Rewind 

Imagine a world where it is accepted fact that legendary Jazz pianist Fats Waller was born in Passaic, New Jersey instead of Greenwich Village and that a video store operating in the tenement where Waller supposedly lived could survive well into the 21st century renting only VHS tapes. Such is the slightly off kilter imagined reality of Be Kind Rewind, Michel Gondry’s latest celluloid fairytale. The title is also the name of the video store in question owned by Danny Glover, staffed by his somewhat simple adopted son Mos Def and frequented by Jack Back, the loon who lives in a trailer in the wrecking yard across the street. It’s a fantasy universe just a bit off center from our own, but the real world is all around it and it is encroaching.

Glover increasingly suffers the competition from big, impersonal, Blockbuster-like DVD rental chains and a condo developer has set his sights on the parcel of land containing Glover’s store. This is all bad enough, but fortunes seem to take a turn for the disastrous when Jack Black inadvertently erases every one of the VHS tapes that are the store’s stock in trade. Then, instead of replacing the tapes, he and Mos Def set about recreating them with their own video camera. It’s a strange decision, but what’s even stranger is that the fake tapes are a hit. No one is fooled, but customers begin lining up around the block to rent homemade copies of their favorite films and eventually to even star in them.

This is all about as silly as it sounds, yet if you can get into the spirit of it, it kind of works. Be Kind Rewind is a gentle ode to the power of imagination, to the idea of doing it yourself rather than having your entertainment spoon fed to you. It’s about simple creativity uniting a community and empowering it to tell its own story whether the story is true or not.

The best parts of the film feature Black and Def creating their remakes. It’s fun to see the moments they choose to film and the creative ways they go about capturing the scenes with no budget. The recreations of Ghostbusters, Robocop, The Lion King and Rush Hour 2 are charming and also frequently pretty funny. The rest of the film unfortunately isn’t quite as successful. Be Kind Rewind itself almost feels thrown together by amateurs. Of course this is by design, but it tends to counteract the power of the emotional payoff the film is shooting for in the end. You spend most of the film wondering what to take seriously and what is just fooling around. The cast plays it completely straight, never winking at the camera or otherwise letting you know they’re not being real. It creates an interesting tension, but an uncomfortable one that’s more than a little off-putting. Is it a joke and are we meant to be in on it or is it serious?

The film, as loose as it is, benefits enormously from a likeable cast. Everyone seems relaxed without coming across as lazy. There is no snarkiness or above-it-all inside joking. The characters are largely played like real people, though Jack Black is a pretty typical variation on his comedic persona. It works because it’s Jack Black and it fits what we think we know about him. Danny Glover is great as the winding down old man and Def does a fine job as the guy trying to hold everything together. Melonie Diaz is also good as the seemingly ordinary girl who you’d think ought to see through the fantasy, but who seems as happy to play along as everyone else.

Your willingness to play along will likely determine your ability to enjoy the movie. For me, as it tottered along in its strange way, I kept expecting it to fall apart or lose my interest, but somehow it always managed to hold on just short of disaster. On the other hand, while it never completely falls on its face, Be Kind Rewind undeniably feels somewhat half cooked and this keeps me from recommending it more wholeheartedly. In the end, I wonder if it might not have worked better as a short film rather than a feature.

Be Kind Rewind. USA 2008. Written and directed by Michel Gondry. Cinematography by Ellen Kuras. Music score composed by Jean-Michel Bernard. Starring Jack Black, Mos Def, Danny Glover, Melonie Diaz and Mia Farrow. 1 hour 41 minutes. MPAA Rated PG-13 for some sexual references. 3 stars (out of 5)

39 Responses to “Review: Be Kind Rewind (2008) ***”

  1. “In the end, I wonder if it might not have worked better as a short film rather than a feature.”

    I think you nailed what I’ve been trying to get across to myself, much less to others. The film feels quite long at 101 minutes and it’s one of those cases where a film’s length kind of hurt my enjoyment of it. This should have been like Corpse Bride or something, clocking in at around 75 minutes or something… As it is, I just remember being surprisingly bored by big parts of it… There’s a fun center but it’s tough to get to and as Daniel pointed out in a thread, an incident involving Jack Black felt very unnecessary.

    The Lion King, Ghostbusters and Robocop recreations were pretty cool, however.

  2. Excellent review, Craig, and not an easy one. I think you really got it in the 3rd paragraph and then when you said, “You spend most of the film wondering what to take seriously and what is just fooling around.” Also, your last paragraph is spot on.

    As you mention, the enjoyment will depend on the viewer. I was at odds with my friend regarding Lars and the Real Girl, which works in a similar way. I bought in and loved it, he didn’t and disliked it. We saw this one together and I don’t think either of us took the dive, and both ended up disappointed. Like I said on the other thread, I almost wished it would have been more outrageous at times, and you didn’t mention it, but I thought the writing was quite bad.

    All in all, I think we agree that the ambition and idea were a good starting point, but you may have found some bright spots in places I didn’t have the patience to look.

  3. Looks like you’re on the same page, Alexander, as we discussed yesterday.

    The incident was curious – definitely didn’t take me where I thought it was going to, and looking back it really was just unnecessary. For that matter, so was Danny Glover’s motive for going on the trip. Now I’ve just thought of a number of things like both of those, but I’ll stop and just say the first half hour was almost terrible. Maybe the cut you two both recommended could happen there – just start the movie about 5 minutes before Ghostbusters.

    Oh, one other thing – some drawn out scenes, specifically the Jack Black/customer argument in the store, and the multiple Jack Black vomiting scenes.

  4. This is a tough film to review. It straddles a middle ground for me between good and bad. You’re faced with a choice of looking at the bright side and accepting it, or dwelling on the bad side and rejecting it.

    I obviously chose the former, but it could easily have gone the other way.

    I’m with you on Lars, Daniel, and I think it points up an important fact of movie enjoyment: some movies don’t manage to fashion a believable reality for some viewers and if they don’t, they fall on their asses. With those kinds of movies you get strongly divided reactions.

    I saw this one with a pretty mainstream crowd who had probably turned up for Jack Black. I was surprised there wasn’t more grumbling on the way out.

    In the end, Michel Gondry is turning out a bit like Tim Burton…undeniably talented and he has an amazing vision, but he’s most successful when he’s strapped to a strong story.

  5. Interesting point Daniel, although I’d argue that Lars exists in a much more believable reality than Be Kind Rewind. For much of BKR, I found the plot and narrative to be secondary to the film, as though they were just a lazily concocted excuse to get to the “sweding” section of the movie. Even the actors seem to be improvising much of their dialogue, to the point that the storyline seemed almost perfunctory. Then in the last act, all that seemingly throwaway plot suddenly pushes to the forefront and the movie achieves an almost emotionally satisfying conclusion, albeit bizarre and contrived.

    As Craig mentioned after we saw the movie, it’s almost like the main character from Science of Sleep wrote the script.

    The farther I get from it, the less I like the movie. It’s charms, what there were, were fleeting in the face of all that other nonsense. I really think Gondry should leave the writing to someone else.

  6. Oh as for the bad writing…to me it felt like there was no writing at all. I literally wondered to what degree they were making it up as they went along.

    Odd, and yet it added to the whole lo-fi sensibility of the thing.

  7. Travis, a friend of mine, really didn’t respond to Be Kind Rewind at all, though we can differ on these types of things from time to time.I haven’ t seen Rewind yet, and I haven’t seen Lars yet either. I know many here love Lars, and I respect all of your opinions quite a bit, but that idea just sounds too ludicrious, as a farce, yeah, I could get with it, but as something heartwarming, I’m just not sure I could make the leap.

    I’m down with the premise of Be Kind Rewind, but Black hasn’t, for my money, ever capitilized on the startlingly good persona variation that he showed four years ago in School of Rock, still my favorite work of his. Mos Def is a terrific actor, and is the primary reason I may still get the theatre for this one. Gondry’s even slipping for me a bit, Science of Sleep, as I’ve said more than once here, just didn’t work for me.

    Good review.

  8. Interesting Chuck that the very thing that makes Lars work is the thing that’s turning you off to it.

    It’s true that if you can’t make that leap, the movie will fall on its ass. If I’d expected Lars to go that way, I might not have bought into it as easily as having it take me by surprise.

    As for Be Kind, I wish I could recommend it more strongly, but as you can see from everyone else’s reactions that it offers pretty small reward while requiring a lot of patience.

  9. I am going to give Lars a chance on DVD, its been too well-received for me not to, and hopefully I’ll warm to it. Be Kind will probably have to wait for DVD too, I’m hoping to catch In Bruges and, yes, yes, maybe even Semi-Pro soon, though that’s all more appropriate for the weekend thread.

  10. “Your willingness to play along will determine whether you like the film”

    Indeed Craig. I was hradly willing to do such with THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP, and as a result (for the most part) that one fell with a thud. But you at least were smitten with teh engaging cast, so maybe it is worth a look see. In any case, another excellent review.
    Looks like CHOP SHOP is the one to see this week along with that American documentary (what’s it’s name?) both of which received outstanding notices. I am hoping to pull off the Rivette later tonite. You liked it a lot right Craig?

  11. The Rivette won me over, but I say that as one who doesn’t know Rivette well.

    I can recommend Chop Shop also. It was terrific.

    I’d vote for both of those above Be Kind Rewind, especially if you weren’t a fan of Science of Sleep

  12. SO be it Craig, so be it.

  13. Speaking of Lars and the Real Girl, there’s a great interview on last week’s Treatment with Elvis Mitchell (available as a podcast at http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/tt/tt080220nancy_oliver) with the screenwriter.

  14. Thanks for the heads up, Joel.

  15. Speaking as someone who didn’t bite on Lars and the Real Girl, I’d like to say that arguably the toughest obstacle was not the concept–though that didn’t help matters–but Ryan Gosling. I know a lot of folks like him a lot around here, and his performance in this film in particular, but I ended up kind of detesting it. Even in Half Nelson, Gosling somehow manages to annoy me. Compared to several young actors (sadly one of whom is now gone, Heath Ledger) I can think of, he seems to always come across as the most calculated and premeditated, as if he’s worked out the entire performance way ahead of time and now he’s just going through it all. One day I’m going to give Half Nelson another try, though. Fracture was such a forgettable genre entry–that was, at the time, a fun little waste of time on a lazy April afternoon–that his performance didn’t bother me there but on the other hand it didn’t do much, either. (Though I don’t doubt that most actors would be bored playing opposite “I’ve played this kind of role 101 times at this point” Anthony Hopkins there.)

  16. Alexander, very good point, and I must say I agree with you on LARS (it didn’t do it for me either) and Gosling’s performance here. But I did like him in HALF-NELSON.
    Craig: I did not see TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE yet, although I can see it anytime now as it is right in Alison’s neighborhood on the lower East Side. Did you like the film yourself, and if so, how did it rank for you among 2007 docs?

  17. I’m among those who highly rate Gosling. I feel really excited about his ongoing development as an actor, and was particularly taken by his work in Half Nelson. I’m disappointed that he ultimately didn’t retain what would have been another substantial acting assignment – The Lovely Bones. I haven’t yet seen Fracture or Lars, but I’m very keen to catch the latter on DVD.

    Alexander, prepare for many years of bafflement over others favorable response to his work. Who knows, you might be able to launch an academic career off your 1000 page doctoral thesis, titled Why Ryan Gosling Stinks.

  18. Sartre: LOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  19. Can’t wait, sartre!

    Gosling is undeniably talented but as of now none of his performances have taken me in. I sincerely hope that changes.

  20. Who knows? Sometimes we never find a given actor convincing in their roles. Alexander, are you going to any of the Coen brothers films at the Castro this weekend? We’re sadly unable to.

  21. sartre: are you in LA?

  22. No Sam, like Alexander I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. He in the upmarket North Bay, and us close to Cal Berkeley where my wife is doing graduate study.

  23. Sam, I don’t catch as many documentaries as I should and Taxi was one that eluded my grasp.

    Alexander, a distaste for Gosling is certainly cause to dislike Lars. The jury is still out on him for me. Fracture was ok throwaway entertainment.

  24. A most excellent description of Fracture, Craig.

    sartre, I’m going to be too busy Friday and Saturday but my girlfriend and I are going to be seeing Blood Simple and Fargo at the Castro this Sunday afternoon. Ooh, can’t wait…

  25. I missed Fracture, quite enjoyed Lars and Half Nelson, and have The Believer high on my list of want-to-sees.

    For what it’s worth, Sam, I saw and posted a review of Taxi a few weeks ago. It came up in some thread here and I’ve been pretty hard on it for unknown reasons. Worth seeing and worth the nomination, but lacking some sort of cohesive spirit for me. I thought it was a little too broad; Gibney casts his net too wide. Nonetheless, it’s an incredibly important doc.

    Back to BKR and Chuck’s mention of School of Rock (I saw it thrice in the theater) earlier. Jack Black is an enigma to me. A comment on my review of Margot at the Wedding made me do a little research – his credits read like a smorgasbord of made for cable TV movies. Go figure, Shallow Hal (which is another role I love him in) is on FX as I write this. Anyway, check this list out:
    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0085312/

    Am I the only one surprised that he was in Dead Man Walking, “Touched by an Angel,” and Waterworld – all in the same year? Somewhere around High Fidelity he really found his niche, and he hasn’t strayed from it since, except maybe with King Kong.

    All of this is to say that I don’t understand how his career has developed.

    “As Craig mentioned after we saw the movie, it’s almost like the main character from Science of Sleep wrote the script.”

    Hilarious.

  26. We had a 14 degree night in the Northern New Jersey area last night, (Wednesday) so I decided to stay local (foregoing my intended trip to NYC to the Rivette film) and see the subject of this review, BE KIND REWIND at my local multiplex in Edgewater with a friend and two of my kids, my 11 year old and my nine year old.
    Again, Craig has captured the essence of the film with his masterful review. I would give the film two stars (but I have a four star system as opposed to Craig’s five star allocation) and like Craig, found the film an alternating pattern of creative ideas and misfires. Ironically the kids were enraptured by it, adoring the refilming of GHOSTBUSTERS, RUSH HOUR and other favorites.
    Despite its uneven hit or miss quality, I found the film far more satisfying than the surrealistic convolutions that permeated the bulk of THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP, but (of course) nowhere in the same league as the masterpiece ETERNAL SUNSHINE.
    BE KIND REWIND is a passable evening in the theatre. The ideas didn’t quite trump the inconsistant execution and narrative, but it was still a partially engaging ride.

  27. Daniel, is there a way I can access your review for TAXI? I am assuming Craig hasn’t gotten to this film as of yet, but likewise I await his summary judgement.

  28. I enjoyed HALF NELSON but share some of you guys’ hesitiation with Gosling. Talent isn’t the question mark, the question is, again as you folks have already established, one of lack of sponteniety, over concentration. Gosling always feels like he’s trying his damndest to be the next Sean Penn, and God forbid the scene that interfers with that.

    Sean Penn is a brilliant actor, but he even has that problem nowadays, Sean Penn is trying to hard to be the Sean Penn everyone thinks he is. His 1980s work is much more compelling than his late 1990s,2000s work, with the exception of the underrated SWEET AND LOWDOWN. I mean, damn do you remember Penn in CASUALTIES OF WAR? I haven’t seen the picture in years, but I remember being bowled over by the ferocity and committment of that work.

  29. It is worth mentioning that BE KIND REWIND (as noted by Craig at the outset of his review) was filmed in Passaic, New Jersey (and in Jersey City) which is maybe a 15 minute ride from where I live. Like the films of Kevin Smith, the film’s small city flavor and dysfunctional and engaging characters bring to life the ethnic population of these steaming hamlets in the state that is shadowed on each side by NYC and Philadelphia. Passaic has the population and congestion of a big city, but still is permeated with small neighborhoods that define its ethnic character and make-up.

  30. As requested, Sam – just don’t expect the level of professional critique found on LiC!

    http://getafilm.blogspot.com/2008/02/review-taxi-to-dark-side.html

    I overlooked the filming style of Be Kind Rewind in my initial thoughts on it. Filming on location actually did add an element of realism to the experience, and the casting was pretty solid for the supporting roles. Mia Farrow was a curious choice to me, but characters like “Wilson” were pretty funny.

  31. Very nice work there Daniel! I thought your approach here (apparently you do this with all your reviews) where you individually appraise all the film’s components is rather neat. And there is no problem at all with your writing. All that nudity may indeed compromise this experience, but let’s see…….
    Your review does show the other side of the coin as well, since this film is doing 100% at RT with a composite rating of about 8.2. I hope to see it very soon. Interesting website too, by the way. To have a website to allow people to access your work is really the way to go, and you have made the most of it. I also review every film I see all through the year, but my reviews are sent out as e mails to a 70 plus e mail network. Talk about “primitive.” LOL.

  32. Thanks for the kind words, Sam! I’m still not really sure what I’m doing on there, but trying to figure it out as I go along. I wouldn’t say Taxi is one of my best reviews, but it’s an example of how I try to take some sort of an objective perspective in reviewing films. In one of my earliest posts I explain my review philosophy further. I’ve never take a film class and I don’t really know how to write like a critic. I’ll leave that to the experts like you and others who I’ve come to know here. Your approach isn’t primitive at all – I did the same for some years before taking the blogging plunge last fall. I encourage you to consider it if your audience is already that big!

  33. Sam, I’m a little surprised you found something to like in Be Kind. It sounds like we’re roughly on the same page even if my enthusiasm is a tiny bit higher.

    I think had it been full of inside jokes and back patting and snarkiness, as a movie like this could easily have been, I would’ve been totally turned off. It never felt like they were having a joke at the audience’s expense however. It was goofy, but honest and I think its heart was in the right place.

    Still, it’s too bad the effort to reward ratio isn’t a little higher.

    When do I get on the Sam Juliano review email list? Have you considered starting up a blog? It’s amazingly easy. The hard part is the writing and you’re already doing that. Not that I want the competition, but the more good movie sites out there, the better we all are in my opinion.

    I agree with Sam, Daniel. I like your particular approach to reviews, particularly the category gradings.

  34. Yes, indeed Craig, the film had it’s heart in the right place, but to be honest, I am surprised I didn’t hate it too, as my expectations weren’t high (despite your excellent review) because of my disdain for THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP. But this was a far different film in a number of ways, which you yourself have pointed out.
    I am overwhelmed by your desire to receive my reviews. To say that I am honored is an understatement of gargantuan proportions. I will do so, but, what with your voracious moviegoing and magnificent management of this great site, I do not want you to respond, unless there is some interesting issue we want to share. Delete what you can’t get to, and simply scan the rest. Treat this as junk mail in most instances. I will send on a few of my most recent reviews, but I haven’t yet reviewed BAND’S VISIT, THE COUNTERFEITORS and THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP. You are a real sport, thank you.

  35. Looks like I should chime in about Ryan Gosling’s acting expertise. I think I understand what you’re talking about, Alexander, when you describe his work as calculated and premeditated. In some of the early scenes in Lars, for example, I noticed something about his mannerisms that suggested the same to me — I viewed it as his technique being too transparent, which obviously would not be a good thing. As the film progressed, however, I was mesmerized by his performance.

    I’m one of those who thinks Lars & the Real Girl is a wonderful film, starting with a great screenplay and excellent performances by Gosling, Paul Schneider, Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson. Although the early sequences didn’t work as well for me, the film really took off once Bianca’s “secret” was revealed. The film succeeds on many levels, with a surface story line that can make you laugh, and also as a deeply moving and tragic tale about the troubled past of a family struck by tragedy.

    Getting back to Gosling, I think he has enormous talent and, with time, will move away from moments where his technique sometimes shows up onscreen. As a performer he has not just talent but also a charisma that can pull people in — whether he plays a sympathetic or unsympathetic character.

    One more thing: The second time I saw this film, I expected to be put off by the mannerisms Gosling exhibited in the early part of the film. Oddly, his performance seemed even better and more natural the second time around. My best explanation for this is that whatever it was that annoyed me a bit the first time seems to have been consistent with his character when I saw it again. Go figure.

  36. I’m glad Pierre is taking point on the Gosling Acting issue. My approach to acting is purely non-technical. If I believe the characterization, it was a good performance and I’ll even give an actor 10 or 15 minutes to get me into it. There are varying degrees of impact beyond that, but that’s the least I expect.

    Gosling felt a little more mannered to me in Half Nelson and I remember thinking he was good, but that I wanted to see him take it up to another level. I felt like even Fracture was a step forward. It at least broadened his range a little bit and showed me that what was good about Half Nelson wasn’t a fluke.

    With Lars…I don’t know. Obviously I gave it a very positive review so I was sucked in. I wonder if Gosling can really be blamed for those who didn’t like the movie. It’s sort of a chicken and egg question, but if a movie draws you in, it’s easier not to be distracted by the mechanics of performance or editing or pick your craft. Of course it helps if those things aren’t distracting to begin with, but how many performances can really hold up to the scrutiny of someone in the audience who is bored and just isn’t buying what the movie is delivering? Every little tic and flaw starts to jump out and after a while, that’s all you see.

    This is kind of what happened for me with Juno. I can’t pinpoint one single thing that put me off, but for whatever reason I was never drawn into the world it had created and all I noticed were things that bugged me.

    Sometimes a film can start badly and then rally, but sometimes they’re doomed from the first 15 minutes.

    Ok, talking in circles again. Have fun making sense out of all that.

  37. I enjoyed both submissions (above) by Pierre and Craig on Ryan Gosling. All I can really add here is that any actor who could deliver like he did in HALF NELSON is worth some serious attention. The jury is still out for him, but the odds are in his favor.

  38. “…can really hold up to the scrutiny of someone in the audience who is bored and just isn’t buying what the movie is delivering? Every little tic and flaw starts to jump out and after a while, that’s all you see.”

    Perfectly describes my experience of Michael Claymation – the movie, not George.

  39. once again agreed Sartre!!!!

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