This Week's New Releases
Be Kind Rewind
dir. Michel Gondry
Watching Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind placed me in the same state of mind that Trinculo is in when, in The Tempest, he comes across something that overwhelms his reason. "What have we here?" he wonders. "A man or a fish? Dead or alive? A fish: He smells like a fish; a very ancient and fishlike smell; a kind of not of the newest poor-John. A strange fish!" How else can I describe Be Kind Rewind than as a very strange fish? I do not know if it is dead or alive, new or ancient, and there is something oceanic about it. Oceanic in the sense that its images and rhythms are not produced on the surface of the sensible, in the daylight of the consciousness, but entirely in the depths of a dream. This movie has almost nothing to do with reality.
Be Kind Rewind is directed by the man who gave the world the wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The story, which was written by Gondry (and not by Charlie Kaufman), is about a video store in Passaic, New Jersey. The store only rents VHS tapes. It's located on the ground floor of the building that legendary jazz pianist Fats Waller was born in. Mos Def works in the store; Jack Black hangs around the store. Believably, the old building is about to get knocked down for a new condo. Believably, Jack is electrocuted while trying to sabotage a power plant. Unbelievably, Jack becomes magnetized. Unbelievably, his magnetized body erases all the VHS tapes in the video store. To stay in business, and to save the building Fats Waller was born in from the developers, Mos Def decides to make homemade versions of the films that were erased by Jack Black's magnetized body.
No, a human cannot be magnetized. Yes, Black's electrocution would have killed a normal human being. No, we can never imagine Mos Def and Jack Black as best friends. None of this makes sense, none of it is bad, and none of it is as impressive as Eternal Sunshine. What can we call this kind of movie? A very strange fish. CHARLES MUDEDE
dir. Jon Poll
Once noted for farts, food fights, and the occasional thoughtful moment, the teen-movie genre has since settled into an MTV-approved rut, with all traces of hormonal confusion and rebellion erased in favor of squeaky-clean stereotypes intent on solving their problems through dance. The unusually ambitious Charlie Bartlett isn't a great movie—it's too slight and unfocused for that—but its wobbly quality and refusal to concentrate too hard on target demographics make it awfully welcome. In this era of the slick, soundtrack-propelled high-school movie, it's refreshing to see one that tries to chew too much.
The nicely unpolished Anton Yelchin plays the title character, an attention-craving prep-school reject who lives in a huge mansion with his boozily oblivious mother (Hope Davis, relishing the chance to drop her usual hemorrhoidal persona). Trying to endear himself to his new public-school classmates, he hatches a scheme to sell off his bottomless supply of prescription meds to the student body, a move that boosts his popularity exponentially while tripping the radar of his recovering-alcoholic principal (Robert Downey Jr., who should really play the straight man more often).
The shambling plot may lose its way occasionally, but debuting writer Gustin Nash scores some unexpectedly witty points about the current state of uncomprehending parents and psychiatrists serving as vending machines. His greatest coup, however, may be in the creation of the title character, who comes off as a throwback to the genre's glory days: smart without being preternaturally wise, cool without seeming forced, and endearing without skimping on the vaguely dickheaded tendencies that made the likes of Ferris Bueller and the kid brother from Just One of the Guys so iconic. Only God and John Hughes know how this will play in the instant-gratification Zac Efron regime, but a rediscovery somewhere down the road seems assured. ANDREW WRIGHT
dir. Pete Travis
Vantage Point aims to add a little Rashomon to the standard political-thriller template. It misses the mark badly, resulting in a clunky, unnecessarily complicated thriller that never earns the gimmick of endless repetition it forces the audience to sit through.
The story takes place in Spain, where the U.S. president (William Hurt) has organized a worldwide summit on combating terrorism. "GNN" has an army in place to televise the momentous occasion; the Secret Service is on full alert due to substantial threats. Meanwhile, agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid) is returning to the job after taking a bullet for the president during an assassination attempt. Shaky and medicated, Barnes is nonetheless assigned to cover the POTUS during the summit's opening ceremony—and then shots ring out, bombs explode, and the film rewinds right before our eyes to 30 minutes before, when we're taken through the assassination again (and again and again) with a different character.
These characters run the gamut from local police to camcorder-wielding tourists to the assassins themselves, with each new thread revealing more and more of the plot. But as the film lumbers along, the gimmick quickly becomes tiresome. This sort of conceit requires a certain amount of finesse to pull off successfully, but Vantage Point has all the subtlety of a dump truck, with director Pete Travis using the same footage over and over to rapidly diminishing effect. (The film's big pyrotechnic bang is especially overused, shown to us from the exact same angles each time it detonates.) And while the assassination plot is well thought out, its unraveling is so obvious and simple-headed that it renders the entire setup laughable. Not even a semitwist of a climax can rescue this sliced-'n'-diced schlock. BRADLEY STEINBACHER
dir. John Sayles
A John Sayles movie has a distinctive rhythm. It is neither the rhythm of Honeydripper's hypothetical old South, full of cotton fields and racism and moonshine-wetted blues (the first half of the movie), nor the rhythm of an equally abstract new South, with its cotton fields and racism and whiskey-soaked rock 'n' roll (the second half). A John Sayles movie is slow and deliberate and it does not swing. He's good at magnifying details until they look the size of legends, but he's no good at lengthening moments until they feel like sweaty Southern afternoons, thick with insects and resentment. Honeydripper is long (over two hours), but it doesn't feel spacious. It feels hopelessly crammed.
In the rural Alabama of 1950, Tyrone (Danny Glover) is the proprietor of a run-down, electricity-compromised roadhouse called the Honeydripper. As the film opens, he's losing all his customers to a competing bar, complete with newfangled jukebox, that's situated across the street. (We never meet the proprietor of this establishment, which makes it easier to cheer when Tyrone swipes his liquor delivery.) We know Tyrone is virtuous because he believes in the power of live music, and we know that he's a smart businessman because he fires his longtime blues crooner in favor of an itinerant hotshot known (lamely) as Guitar Sam.
Meanwhile, another guitar whiz named Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.) is passing through town; and Tyrone's wife is considering taking up Pentecostalism; and their daughter is frail and saving for beauty school; and there's a wise blind guy and a bad white sheriff and a lecherous fat lady and cotton to be picked and back rent to be paid. The plot unfolds at its stately Saylesian pace with exactly zero surprises. Guitar Sam isn't coming? You don't say. ANNIE WAGNER
dir. David Bruckner, Dan Bush, Jacob Gentry
At its heart, The Signal is a stunt—a cheap horror flick told in three segments by three different directors. Set in the fictional city of Terminus, the movie spins around a simple, and genuinely unnerving, premise: What would happen if our televisions and phones suddenly started broadcasting a signal that turned man brutally against man?
It's a great idea, one that preys on our fears of both technology and isolation—communication as the starter pistol for the apocalypse. And for the first segment, at least, the result is terrifying. Directed by David Bruckner, the film's initial moments are beautifully paced, told from the POV of Mya (Anessa Ramsey), an unfaithful wife whose husband, Lewis (a truly menacing AJ Bowen), is one of the first to be affected by the noise coming from the TV. Suspicions lead to confrontation, confrontation leads to a baseball bat meeting a skull—while outside, the entire city is starting to lose its shit.
From this setup, The Signal then switches to another POV, with director Dan Bush taking the reins. And it's here that the film begins to falter. Making an uneasy shift into black comedy, the second segment—this time following Lewis in search of the fleeing Mya—is so tonally different from the opening that it kills the tension the first section had earned. Black comedy may play to Bush's strengths as a director—the segment itself is certainly entertaining—but it feels like it's from a completely different movie. The shift is made even more jarring once the third and final director, Jacob Gentry, tries to muscle the film back in line with its opening. The Signal is never boring, and at times it's even outright terrifying. But watching it, you can't help but wish the directors had abandoned the three-director stunt in order to maintain the near-perfection established in the first act. BRADLEY STEINBACHER