Full plate, half-heartedly picked at:
Be Kind Rewind. Twisted, tangled, snarled zaniness around a behind-the-times video store, facing foreclosure, in Passaic, N.J. An habitué of the place (Jack Black, at his most demonically possessed) unwittingly erases the entire stock after he becomes “magnetized” while attempting to sabotage the next-door power plant: “I didn’t sabotage the power plant; the power plant sabotaged me.” With the help of the phlegmatic clerk (Mos Def, a half-step faster than Stepin Fetchit), he then sets about to re-shoot every requested title on home video — for some reason, the re-shot movies are said to have been “Sweded” — and thereby pumps new life into the business. Zaniness notwithstanding, there is a lumbering logic at work, a natural next step in the movie fan’s expanding sense of entitlement: first a video store on every corner, then a camcorder in every pot, et voilà. My movies, my remakes, all mine. Director Michel Gondry, a specialist in zaniness if not nearly a master of it (The Science of Sleep, Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), apparently sees nothing wrong with any of these developments (Power to the People!), though he can’t quite get out of the way of the steamroller of Copyright Infringement. His offhand style, by which he clearly conveys a looseness of standards, lacks the precision demanded of comedy. But his cheap knockoffs of big movies — Ghostbusters, Robocop, Rush Hour 2, Driving Miss Daisy, The Lion King, et al. — have touches of invention that would do credit to any gang of let’s-put-on-a-show neighborhood kids: e.g., the tomato pizzas that stand in for exit-wound blood splatters. In the end, the film as a whole seems little more than a tedious set-up for these knockoffs, which can be accessed, at your convenience, at a web address disclosed in the final credits. I didn’t jot it down. I’d had enough.
Charlie Bartlett. A poor little rich boy, drummed out of every private school in a reachable radius, shows up undiplomatically for his first day at public school in a blazer and tie, toting an attaché case, glad-handing like a Presidential candidate. But after a beating or two, he attains his uppermost goal in life — popularity — by peddling prescription meds to his classmates and offering confessional-style counseling in adjoining stalls in the boys’ lavatory. Overstated teen comedy, but not grossly so, never gross-out-ly so, with an above-average range of emotion for the genre, and a narrowly pallid palette. Directed by Jon Poll (George and Ringo?), it ingratiates itself chiefly through the choirboy delicacy of its star, Anton Yelchin, who could practically pass for preteen, an inherently more ingratiating age. Kat Dennings, the moderately Goth romantic interest, helps out with the ingratiation, while Hope Davis and Robert Downey, Jr., as the respective single parents of the hero and heroine, contribute little but indie prestige.
Military Intelligence and You! Amiable, amusing anti-Americanism, in the form of a spoof of a WWII military training film, “declassified” under the Freedom of Information Act. Black-and-white Hollywood war films of the period, featuring the likes of William Holden, Alan Ladd, Arthur Kennedy, Lloyd Nolan, and Ronald Reagan, some of whom have been obviously redubbed, are mixed in with a not exactly matching black-and-white pastiche featuring Patrick Muldoon, Mackenzie Astin, Elizabeth Bennett, and John Rixey Moore, all of whom have been well coached, and all of whom are game. Modern anachronisms infiltrate the stiff-upper-lip dialogue and the stentorian narration to make plain that the writer and first-time director Dale Kutzera is thinking of a more up-to-date war (“Raise our threat level from Orange to Tangerine,” “Lower our threat level from Butterscotch to Autumn Harvest”). Which, whether by design or by accident, opens up an unpalatable can of worms. One of these worms would be the implicit sameness of the American psyche, then as now, and another would be the implicit equivalence of the Second World War and the invasion of Iraq. You might go so far as to swallow the one without going that far with the other.
The Band’s Visit. To be specific, the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra, an octet costumed in robin’s-egg blue, visiting Israel for the inauguration of an Arab Culture Center, but taking a wrong turn to a sound-alike destination in the middle of nowhere, spending a night, getting to know the locals and vice versa, bridging a cultural gulf. The blend of comedy and pathos, under the direction of Eran Kolirin, might call to mind the cinematic heyday of Italian humanism, albeit with more of an absurdist deadpan. Only three of the eight band members receive sufficient screen time to become individualized in the least — the priggish leader, his stifled assistant, an unruly rookie — and Sasson Gabai as the first of the three could stand alongside an Alberto Sordi or an Ugo Tognazzi (to place him in the company of comic-pathetic Italians), albeit with more reserve and decorum. Ronit Elkabetz, as his easygoing hostess, makes a lissomely sensuous foil.
City of Men. Dead End Kids on Dead End Hill, high above the beaches of Rio, a boil-down of a Brazilian TV series. Any resemblance to City of God is not strictly incidental. (Fernando Meirelles, the director of that other City, worked as co-producer on this one, directed by Paulo Morelli.) The fashion-conscious photography, colored and textured appropriately for a jeans ad, is rather at cross-purposes with the Raw Reality. And the lackadaisical narrative, picking up steam in the latter stages with the outbreak of a turf war, but concentrating at all stages on a pair of pacifistic pals (Darlan Cunha and Douglas Silva, reprising their TV roles), heads inexorably toward a resolution that, one way or another, more tragically or less, can only be schmaltzy.
That last film, although it will not quite serve as an appetizer, will serve at least as a harbinger of the upcoming San Diego Latino Film Festival, a dependably vibrant event which this year celebrates its fifteenth anniversary, or its Quinceañera, as we’ve been taught to say. The program is always a bit of a crapshoot, but that’s just part of the vibrancy, the thrill of the gamble. I am pleased, for example, to see an old favorite of the festival, Arturo Ripstein, back with a new movie, El Carnaval de Sodoma, as well as with an old one, El Lugar sin Límites, both centering around the enclosed worlds of brothels. Even if I can no longer consider a film of his, ever since he began shooting in digital video, to be a good bet, it’s a bet I’ll always be happy to make. (The earlier film, shown at the 1979 San Diego International Film Festival on whose selection committee I sat, can be counted a safe bet.) You may place your own wagers at the UltraStar Mission Valley, March 6 through 16. Go to www.sdlatinofilm.com for the full card. And good luck to you.
Meantime, in case you couldn’t get to the Ken this past week, be advised that 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days moves over to Landmark’s La Jolla Village on Friday, giving you a second chance. Something to sink your teeth into.