RIORI Vol 3, Installment 34: Michel Gondry’s “Be Kind Rewind” (2008)



The Players…

Mos Def, Jack Black, Danny Glover and Melonie Diaz, with Mia Farrow and Sigourney Weaver.

The Story…

There is a corporate attack on indie films!

No, not that kind. The folks at Be Kind Rewind, a little mom-and-pop video rental, are having trouble keeping up with the Jones’. No one rents VHS tapes anymore, save the shop’s local, loyal, and perhaps misguided patrons. Beyond those folks, and in these days of Netflix deliveries and digital streaming, Be Kind Rewind barely has any legs to stand on. Let alone stumps.

But what about this nefarious corporate plot to destroy the local video mart? Blame the power plant across the way. Clerk Jerry thinks the exposure from high tension wires is playing hell with his brain—by extension his store—and plans to engage in some serious sabotage. If not for the sake of his fevered mind, then in the name of the store and the few who frequent there!

Viva le cinema!

The Rant…

When I was a mere stripling back in the 80s, VCRs finally became affordable at a sane price. Prior to, say, 1980 if you wanted to enjoy the luxury of watching movies in the comfort and privacy of your own mancave, you’d have to shell out enough to afford a new Buick, minus the tires. By the mid-80s, as my dad did understood, all you needed was 500 bucks. This was 80s dollars, mind you. Not cheap, but relatively reasonable (my father got a sharp deal coughing up enough for a high end unit. The thing held up well into the DVD years. It now holds up a steamer trunk in the basement). Yay. Now all the hit titles you wanted were available at the local Blockbuster ready for your couch. Or maybe via your supermarket. Or a few sketchy holes in the wall. Or pawn shops. Or that scabby guy on the street corner outside the CVS with the trench coat and the breath that smells of durian fruit. Multimedia infancy awaits your open arms!

To wit, circa 1985 you could rent a VHS f*ckin’ anywhere. And I wasn’t kidding about the supermarket either. It’s where I checked out the first Batman movie by Tim Burton. I even had a coupon form their circular at the ready. You know, to save a few. Really.

But here I introduce the ultimate bane of renting movies in the 80s. Not all in Heaven is free. We’re not including the sh*tty audio and video quality of the tapes exacerbated by thousands of plays from random strangers. As much of an ass pinch that was, I’m talking about the kryptonite that weakened every avid film renter back then: the dreaded late fee.

*collective screams from folks alive between Reagan and Clinton*

Before Reed Hastings’ ingenuity, your average movie rental had a very small window into which one may watch a movie checked out from the local Fotomat. Two days was the usual time slot. If you didn’t get that tape in your hot, little hands and back to the DMV as fast as your little, furry legs could carry you and—blammo—you get smacked upside the head with a late fee. In 80s bucks it usually meant the GDP of Belgium for having your copy of Top Gun 30 minutes late. You couldn’t even watch movies in your mancave without the doomsday clock ticking in the background. It was kinda hard to immerse oneself in Rain Man knowing you had best vacate the ball before midnight bell tolled. Or 4 PM. Whatever came first.

A lesser trouble with video rentals—although no less aggravating—was that damned time window. And if you checked your watch, you didn’t even get the full two days to enjoy your tape. If you checked it out on Friday at 8 PM, it wasn’t due back on Sunday 8 PM. Oh no. It was due back Saturday at eight. Heaven forbid you rented that copy of The Goonies the night the clocks changed for Daylight Savings. It would be a paradox of Asimovian proportions.

One could see it every Friday at Blockbuster when that week’s new titles dropped. The pressure of the “Two Day” rental looming. Since the video store had around only 50 copies of a fresh release in stock, you could almost guarantee a hot topic then like, say, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves starring Kevin Costner (shut up. It was the second highest grossing film of 1991. Only Terminator 2 topped it, and that tape always pulled a Jimmy Hoffa), would be gonesville before you got there. It wasn’t just because of the limited stock—although that was a prime suspect—but you had to physically wait until a renter dropped off their copy within the allotted time frame. Otherwise fees. Unfair fees. Like when you pay two bucks to a parking meter for an hour of wait time only to have it exceeded and the cop slips a fifty dollar ticket under your wiper. I understand inflation (no I don’t), but really?

Said fees meant that when you had to return Back To The Future before lightning struck you’d miss payments on next month’s mortgage. So return time was—albeit scattershot over the course of your average Friday or Saturday night—quite rigid but also random. I saw many a beleaguered Blockbuster clerk at the return window sweating like a day trader and very pissed off with humanity on numerous Friday nights. I myself once waited—measuring the degree of my smarts—at the same desk for over two hours to get a new release in my hot little hands for that Saturday night’s viewing until my patience paid off. Who-hoo! The 400 Blows, you are mine! I was 12. I thought it was softcore. Forgive me.

So what’s my point with all of this? Faithful readers (all five of you), you know I have some pretzel logic intertwined with my trips down whatever lane takes me at a given moment. The point is thus: it used to be kind of a quest to find the movie you sought at your local VHS emporium, akin to us poor folks scouring the discount DVD aisles at FYE. A search, a goal most holy. We had no Netflix, no Hulu, no YouTube back in the Reagan years. Movies we wanted weren’t a click away; we had no click to speak of. Beyond Blockbuster Video, Hollywood Video and the vagrant with the crack addiction and facial knife scars Video, the file share was dubbed tapes swapped between one another’s living rooms. It was the frontier, sweet Jeebus.

Later when we tired of the big hits, we were pioneers seeking out the indie/foreign sh*t. We had to uncover enclaves of video renters/salesfolk to score the dope we so dearly needed. Hitchcock films pre-PsychoBarry Lyndon from Kubrick. The director’s cuts for films that had no director’s cuts. The local SafeWay was for wanting. Us video renters who were serious in keeping our mitts on a video for as long as we needed, however long that took (admittedly porn didn’t take much time) to dissect and enjoy every angle, we sought out the indie shops.

I recall the ur-speakeasy video shop in my little burg. It was the first video rental—indie or otherwise—in the area, and ultimately the last. It even had a cool, all-knowing name: Omni Video.

The place was a shack. It had a cool slanted roof made entirely of skylights, both highlighting the merch and ensure the clerks clear profiles would be well silhouetted so to recount cops to who stole last three copies of Black Christmas. The joint squatted onto a stretch of practical highway in the shadow of the local Burger King, the lord of all it surveyed. It looked like the kind of place to dump a body. Back in my junior high days, me being a budding film buff (translation: score a mint copy of Return Of The Jedi in Korean) me mate and I sought out this relic. Sure, it had dozens of titles on the shelves. Right. Dozens. Like 24, not including pornos. The rest of the joint was cluttered with busted stereo equipment, shoddy VCRs stacked one upon the other like lilting checkers and I think I remember a rim or four to a Ford Mustang against the counter. Quality operation.

We came by having heard of the place with it’s out-of-it films for rent. I remember it as such we were looking for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. A controversial film at the time, which was why we wanted to check it out. The legit operations didn’t carry it, so we sold our white boy, suburban, swingin’-a-dead-cat-by-the-grave souls to Omni in search of our grail. The proprietor grunted and snuffled and didn’t give much a damn about ratings R, PG, X or Grade A; he’d put whatever we had into our paws so long as the price was right (a meager two bucks. Imagine that). We laid out five and crashed through the exit, very swiftly as the homunculus wielding the greasy wrench staggered out of the “sound studio.” A curious oregano-tainted smell followed him. Have a nice day.

Needless to say, we watched Brazil and failed to see what the whole hullabaloo was about. Again, I was 12. Ah well, Star Wars then. Again.

Back in the day, finding videos for an evening’s entertainment wasn’t as easy as Netflix. I’ve been their customer since its inception, 17 years. I only cashed in when the discount with the purchase of my first (and only, and still well-functioning) DVD machine. I suppose me being at the butt end of Gen X only I can truly appreciate the difference between renting VHS at your local church potluck, getting the DVDs you want via snail mail with no fines to streaming sh*t in your sleep, actual paying attention neither required nor necessary (hell, that’s how the Oscars are doled out, if you’re weighing any value in what you rent).

Renting videos for home viewing has come a long way. Hail convenience. Still, actual movie quality and respect for folks who take the overland route homeland to pick ’em apart/love ’em to pieces? It mostly goes unnoticed these days. Hail convenience.

But the quest shall always continue…

Somewhere in a corner of Passaic, NJ a revolution is brewing.

Kindly Mr Fletcher’s (Glover) video rental Be Kind Rewind is under siege. Not by more upscale competition. Not under the push of using 21st Century home video formats (eg: DVDs and digital streaming) rather than his worn-out library of VHS. Okay, maybe there’s a little flak from the city’s zoning commission. But overall, none of that is bearing down on his store’s reputation and imminent survival.

Nope. It’s all Jerry’s (Black) fault, him and his dopey conspiracies.

Jerry and Mike (Mos Def) have been Mr Fletcher’s loyal flunkies forever, and have been committed to shelling out movie fun to the neighborhood for years. But lately Jerry’s had a screw go loose. He’s convinced that the power plant he’s been living under in his beater trailer is messing with his mind. All those kilowatts? Seeping into his skull? Guy can barely think straight anymore. Jerry decides to do something drastic.

He lassos Mike into an act of sabotage: take down the generator. Of course it does not go well, and Jerry gets zapped to high heaven. The result? Well, besides more of Jerry’s manic behavior, he’s been magnetized! And thanks to his clumsiness (and an unbalanced, ionic pudding head), he’s wiped clean every tape in the shop! Blank! What’re they gonna do with no stock? What about their jobs? What’ll they tell Mr Fletcher?

Nothing. The show must go on.

Jerry concocts the wild idea that he and Mike “recreate” the titles of their defunct VHS library. Shoot their own versions! Starring them! Hey, gotta maintain customer loyalty, right?

Mike’s not too sure of this, but he doesn’t want to let Mr Fletcher down, either. What the hell. As a goof, he and Jerry do their best stab at a lo-fi version of Ghostbusters using whatever resources that happen to be lying around. Here’s hoping the neighbors will bite.

To their delight, they do. In fact, their amateur efforts prove to be even more popular and profitable than the polished Hollywood originals! So Jerry and Mike do the next logical thing: expand their fledgling empire. If these two local yokels can do what big deal actors and directors can, then why not let the whole gang in on the act? Friends, Passaic, countrymen, lend us your camcorders!

Everybody wants to be in showbiz…

Y’know, sometimes this blog can be a real drag. Night after night watching mediocre movies in hope that some bright spot pops though the clouds. After weeks of anti-binging on lame cinematic dross, one may as well pray for ever seeing the sun again, if only for single, fleeting beam.

In other words, it’s nice to get a breath of fresh air once in a while. Even if it’s quick, like Be Kind Rewind. Hell, I’ve watched many stinkers in a row, and any bright spot—be it of cinema or what a cop waves in your face well after 2 AM—will grab your attention and right quick. And no, Officer, I’ve been at home, reading the Bible and taking a hi-lighter to the Book of Revelation. Bless you.

So here’s what took a shine to me (haw haw):

I’ll admit it, I was wary about watching Rewind. The last Gondry movie covered at RIORI—the big screen adaptation of The Green Hornet—didn’t really deliver. It wasn’t bad, but I felt its shortcomings resulted from endless manhandling from the production side. That and too much Seth Rogen as Seth Rogen.

It’s wonky plot device of Jack Black’s brain getting magnetized via an analog to how The Flash got his powers didn’t sound so hot either. I guess Barry Allen’s light speed and Jack Black hyperdrive onscreen histrionics created to have the almighty Maguffin shoved into play both are too demented to lend much depth to a neighborhood, ensemble comedy. If there was any depth to delve about a crumbling video store and its patrons, that is.

Finally, I wasn’t too keen on seeing another flick with Jack Black’s signature, over-caffinated shenanigans front, center and behind. Does he improv all his lines? How about his everything? You wanna watch a low-key manic Black? 1998’s Enemy Of The State. Really. He did have an acting career back then.

Well, it took me about to the second act to come around to Rewind. All that fiddle-faddle with the defragged VHS and the kooky idea of amateur recreations of classic (and not so classic) movies was the hook. An Andy Kaufman-esque way of getting the crowd to go along with Gondry’s vision. I got punked. I endured 20-plus minutes of slapstick and forehead-slapping to get to, “Oh, I see.”

I found my patience ultimately rewarded.

Rewind is lighthearted—more so than usual—but more than a little goofy for a Gondry flick. Sure, Hornet was a lark; a tongue-in-cheek action movie with lots of kung fu, car chases, explosions and…Seth Rogen being Seth Rogen. But Rewind is laid back, where the former was manic and often stiff. Rewind‘s a casual affair, once getting beyond the self-conscious silliness. That and keeping the man-who-sh*ts-napalm-as-delivery on a firm leash. A lot of that restraint has to do with Mos Def as Mike, but more on that later.

Like I said before, it took me a bit to cozy up to Rewind, and only after I figured out what the film really is. Be Kind Rewind is what I like to call a “neighborhood movie.” The immediate setting of the film is a character in itself, no less than the principal players. For example, consider Spike Lee’s very hot afternoon around Sal’s Pizza in Do The Right Thing. Or Wang and Auster’s metaphysical Smoke, where the cigar  shop in a Brooklyn corner is tentpole to the story proper (made concrete by Harvey Keitel’s character’s daily morning snapshot ritual of his store). We had Rocky running around South Philly. Maybe even the 4077th in MASH (the movie not the TV show, you hipsters. Play nice), its endless drab canvas curtains against the antics of Trapper John, Hawkeye and Duke (again, movie, and shave off that beard) with their vaudevillian nose-thumbing at ineffectual authority.

Rewind also has this feeling of cozy community at its heart. All the players here are pretty relatable, and could be found in Downtown, Anywhere, USA. You know the kinds, folks you could pick up out of a line up, pointing a finger and saying, “Yep, that’s him. I know that guy.” We have ourselves an ensemble cast to play with. Not to worry, they’re not all characters off an old Edgar Wallace Plot Wheel. There’s some actual warmth here, where one could easily slide into the background yet still have some small value. It helps you find a window to invest some time with the townsfolk in Passaic and actually care about their lives, too. And this in a Jack Black vehicle! I just as shocked as you are.

What starts with a zany premise gently evolves into nostalgia, always a powerful potion to gain an audiences’ sway. Like I recounted in my above, fevered, drunken, rambling tale of glory in pre-Netflix movie rental acquisition (is that a great line of bullish*t or what?), sometimes seeking out a movie—be it in a theatre, Blockbuster or hole-in-the-wall behind the Chow Mien Palace—is better than actually seeing the bloody movie. It can be a shared experience, later to be recounted with fellow distant film fans within the neighborhood. We found it! The Lost Dutchman’s Mine! Don’t tell anyone! And Brazil shoved into the VCR! Ha-ha! Hail Satan!

So, like the folks in Mr Fletcher’s Jersey neighborhood, relying on the only—however obsolete but still amaranthine (look it up, you hipster trash)—video shop to spend an evening away from their dreary routine. They are us. They are the neighborhood, and since the newsstand and soda fountain have gone the way of the T Rex, all can chew the fat about sh*t they saw Friday night. I know I’m leaning well into the wind with sentimentality, but before FaceBook, The Walking Dead and urgent, instant music opinions (things which never had a physical gathering place) the local vid store was the place to go to share pop culture opinions with strangers and regulars alike. And record stores don’t count, either. Not really. Face it: you only argued with yer bud about the merits of Permanent Waves against Moving Pictures in the store, them or the clerk. Negative to comic shops, too. All you need there is matching sneakers and welcome to the cult. You still sporting that scruffy thing on your jaw?

Simply put, Gondry did a very good, pleasantly subtle job making Be Kind Rewind the center of the neighborhood over a continuum, not some vital historical edifice (though later it was but not really but definitely later. Just wait and see and mind that return fee). The homey atmosphere was achieved with charm, winks and nostalgia for things now so long gone. And never in hurry. It was helped with some pretty decent acting from our leads who are known for not being—what’s the word?—contained. It looks like Gondry had a leash all right, but slack. Maybe only as tight as necessary.

So what about Mos and Black, our heroes? The odd couple. Movie fanboys incarnate. Who’d’ve thunk a streetwise rapper and Bozo-on-speed would have such decent chemistry? Sure, it’s in a Three Stooges Minus One kind of way, but tempering their usual personas, Gondry coaxes a mild but self-conscious silliness as well as a “kids in a candy store” vibe. It’s cute, and by this I mean endearing. It’s understood they’re both cinema buffs, otherwise they wouldn’t be at Mr Fletcher’s dying albatross. They may misunderstand each other outright, but when the “opportunity” to recreate the movies comes to the fore, both concede and get down to business: having fun. Even this being a film with Black’s over enthusiasm, only to be tempered by Mos’ hangdog and hidden grin, it’s akin to my video rental store paradigm. Movies bring strangers and weirdoes together, for better or worse.

Rewind is the anti-High Fidelity. I know, I know. That’s another Jack Black quip-fest I covered here. Shut it. I’m going to make it relevant (try to). Instead of ugly snobs scaring off business/snaring customers into their trace element, arcane knowledge of movies gone by, we get Mike and Jerry sharing the wealth. Movies all around for anyone who likes ’em, bush league or major! The film’s heart feels to me a tribute to DIY filmmaking; those goofy kids back in the 70s with their Super 8s trying to be Camino. Witnessing Mike and Jerry’s ramshackle yet entertaining efforts—and eventually the entire neighborhood’s contributions—it slowly but surely came to my attention that Rewind was a secret love letter to us old fuds from Gen X—perhaps before then—although streaming video is convenient, it lacks interaction. It denies the time to reflect. Sorta like social media; immediacy does not necessarily mean urgency, if you hear what I’m screaming. In other words, rub some elbows now and again.

At the end of the day, Rewind spoke to the movie geek in me, and not in an ugly, pointed way like, say, Altman’s The Player (he directed MASH, right?). I guess the best word to describe Rewind is a term I know I have never used here at RIORI without a scintilla of irony: whimsical. I started out hating this movie, off-put by Black’s usual schtick, Mos’ slouched performance and what seemed to be the usual “community, unite!” paradigm. Okay, there was a decent helping of that codswallop, but it was a cute bait-and-switch. A ruse. Rewind was all and none of that. It moment by moment became the oft-dreaded “feel good” movie, but also holding some weight within social commentary. Honest, emotional weight. That’s usually better than just a nostalgia trap, don’cha think?

Rewind‘s a specimen that you just gotta see to get. It’s understood by now that the thing appealed to my inner (and ofter outer) movie geek. It did it slowly though, carefully and thoughtfully. Gondry tricked me into this film. I couldn’t stand the first act. You? Stand it. It’ll be rewarding, I assure you.

But this fu*king copy of Brazil—gummed up with peanut butter and too much porn—in my dad’s VHS I got is over 30 years late (even ignoring the Y2K scam). And this f*cking trunk is f*cking heavy. Guess I own the fool tape now. And it’s in Portuguese, dammit. Not the trunk. Korean, as usual.

 The Verdict

Rent it or relent it? Rent it (so to speak). It takes a while to warm up, but Be Kind Rewind is ultimately satisfying. Just be patient, unlike Blockbuster on a Friday night with those checked out copies of Dances With Wolves. Damn you, Costner. Damn you to heck.

Stray Observations…

  • Wait. Was that Steve “The Colonel” Cropper on the train? By golly, it was. Awesome!
  • “Why does it do that when you do that?” To get to the next act, duh.
  • “I like your ensemble.” Wink.
  • The “pizza effects” were funny and brilliant. A salute to the lo-fi ethos at work.
  • “It’s a country, not a verb!” That’s what I told ’em!
  • Is all of this simply a nod of appreciation for all DIY filmmakers out there? I’d like to know so.
  • “He don’t like remakes…”
  • Film brings people together. You’re reading this blog, ain’t ya?

 Next Installment…

“We cannot glimpse the essential life of a caged Animal, only the shadow of its former beauty.” – Julia Allen Field

RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 5: Michel Gondry’s “The Green Hornet” (2011)


The Players…

Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Christoph Waltz and Cameron Diaz, with Edward James Olmos, David Harbour, Tom Wilkinson and a very funny cameo from James Franco.

The Story…

When careless Britt Reid’s newspaper mogul father dies accidentally, he has to man up and take over his old man’s media empire. Britt? He’s a slovenly, self-entitled trust-fund bastard. All he needs is himself, partying, girls, that’s all and forget the family business. But after one night when a prank goes wrong, and he’s inadvertently falls into the belly of LA’s crime beast, he has an epiphany. All these low-lives are running the city—the city Dad always wrote about and exposed its dark side—and almost nearly ruined Britt. Nothing like your balloon being popped to wake you up. So he and his buddy Kato do the only rational thing in response: become superheroes…with a really bitchin’ ride.

The Rant…

Sex sells, as the popular axiom goes. You know what comes in second? Nostalgia.

If you were there, you might remember back in the 90’s when all those movies based on TV shows and radio serials came out. If you weren’t, here you go: Some Hollywood exec got a wild hair up his ass one day and figured, “Hey, nostalgia’s always a big draw for audiences. Look at The Big Chill, or Diner, or even Back to the Future? And what’s a better source of nostalgia that being reminded of the slapdash fun of the old television and radio shows that built freakin’ pop culture? They need the big treatment!”

Um. Well. Not sure why those type of shows were elected as cinema fodder. I’ve always assumed the 50-year-old-plus demographic was more or less non-existent. My guess is that in a rare show of cynicism on Hollywood’s part, no one from the crucial 16-24 age demo would’ve ever even heard of the likes of any radio serials from yesteryear. Let alone know what a f*cking radio serial is. So a play on viewer ignorance was gambled. More often than not, Hollywood came up trumps.

Now I wasn’t party to the executive meeting, so I’m just basing that scenario on my very lopsided, maligned view of the Hollywood movie machine. It might have more truth than we’d like to admit. Most of these adaptations had middling results at best or just plain fell short. There were the good ones (The Fugitive, Dick Tracy), the not so good (Lost in Space, The Shadow) and the goddam terrible (The Beverly Hillbillies, The Phantom. Curse you, Billy Zane).

Right. So in the last decade of the 20th Century, Hollywood got its sniffer going on the very old nostalgia train and began rooting through the vaults of classic TV and radio to find material for movie updates. Easy money, that; securing the rights to half-forgotten stories must’ve been hella cheap. Low price tag notwithstanding, most of the end results sucked miles of c*ck. Don’t quote me on this, but I think this might’ve been the start of the “reboot trend” that’s omnipresent in movie making today, by which I mean use an established format that proved successful (read: profitable), lather, rinse repeat and watch the cash come oozing in. With the TV-as-movie thing, it worked for a while. When McHale’s Navy finally got the silver screen treatment, there was the tipping point and America threw up it hands. Okay, that’s when I threw up my hands. Maybe I just threw up rather.

In hindsight, I really can’t figure out the big-screen TV/radio model. Other than the novelty of “big stars” and bigger budgets to ensure the movie adaptation will be…well, big, why bother seeing it rather than the already successful TV shows they were based? I mean, not all small successes demand a new wheel. Did The Flintstones need to be upgraded? Why am I even asking?

Still, it can’t be said that the TV/radio cum movie trend was a total waste. There were a few bright spots. I mentioned The Fugitive (which got an Oscar nod for Best Pic, believe it or not). There also was the Mission: Impossible franchise, the very tongue-in-cheek Maverick, and what Monty Python got to do with a bigger budget was nothing short of hysterical. And if you wanna get technical, there was another legacy show that got the royal treatment.

Don’t worry. I am going somewhere with this. Sit down and shut up.

Let’s set the way-back machine to the mid-60s. There was this big hit TV series showcasing screwy, heroic adventures, was chockfull of dastardly villains, byzantine plots, silly costumes, a little social commentary, and also a very chic place to make a cameo. And no, we’re not talking the original Star Trek here. Good guess though, especially with the whole “guest-starring” bit.

We’re talking the original Batman, starring Adam West as the Caped Crusader and Burt Ward as the (man) boy-wonder Robin. Yeah! The corny, campy duo that sets right what their rogues’ gallery sets to undo week after week ensuring Gotham is a safe place to ransack again next week. It was corn-tastic, rife with Jarlsberg dialogue, stupid plots (most of it not a little too removed from the source material) and with enough of a pop cultural cachet to even have Bobby Kennedy request a cameo (for real!). If Tim Burton’s Batman wasn’t an obvious vehicle to tap onto the Hollywood nostalgia TV wagon here, the timing sure was. The Baby Boomers as kids caught Batman on TV and later took their kids to Batman on the big screen. I think some were half-expecting goofiness, since director Burton’s previous effort was 1988’s Beetlejuice. Who knows?

Batman, like a lot of TV shows back then, were upgrades from radio shows. It was the march of time in the media world; Superman, the Lone Ranger, Dick Tracy, all those guys got started on the AM band. Making them into television shows was the next logical step. And like the movie/TV craze a quarter-century ago, there were plenty of wells to plumb to morph once-profitable radio shows into TV series to wedge between ads. At any rate, Batman the TV show became the quintessential iteration of this move. The TV series beget Batman the movie (and its increasingly embarrassing sequels) 20 years later. Doubtless all this exchanging of funds from radio to TV to movie has something to do with that. Not to mention cashing in on the nostalgia ticket. Remember The Wonder Years? Shameless pandering to the Boomers, believe you me. 1989’s Batman was not all that different.

Burton’s Batman, despite its massive budget, top tier stars and its dark and brooding Gotham, still had a lot of winks and nods to the old TV show. Besides Jack Nicholson’s overreaching portrayal of the Joker, there were bits and pieces of camp and comedy spattered throughout the film. Again, little doubt throwing a bone to the older generation. Burton shrewdly knew that he had to straddle the fence between attracting and not alienating the old school fan base while at the same time enticing younger audiences—with their flammable dollars—to come see the show.

What presaged Batman making his big budget splash was this: syndication of the old TV show. I remember as a kid, West and Ward’s Dynamic Duo reruns got heavy rotation on local affiliates. In hindsight this might have been the soft sell to get folks to see the eventual movie proper. Worked for me.

I found the show funny, dumb, corny and poorly choreographed (Bam! Splat!), yet oddly watchable. There was a factor in play that wasn’t even inhaled by the Boomers then and would barely send a whiff to the Millennials: THIS SH*T WAS MEANINGLESS, STUPID FUN. For real. I mean, hey, I watched the crap relentlessly as a kid. It might’ve been because it was summertime and there were only stupid reruns on all the time. But I doubt that the Boomers found Batman pithy, regardless of its social commentary, but rather action of the highest regard. I mean, check out that jet-powered Batmobile! With a siren on top! The jet thing was even carried over to the movie’s Batmobile.

Today’s generation would find the old program nothing more than sad and laughable—a fair assessment all things considered—and would only tune in out of being all ironic. Kids, there was a time where irony was not just buying the tee-shirt. Trust me. Gen X perfected cynicism and irony. By the way, you’re welcome for the Internet being scrubbed as best it can be.

*squeegees bile off screen*

But back in the 60s, the Batman TV series was huge. It became a cultural phenomenon. It had like over 100 episodes in three years. Baloney-fed Adam West was a sex symbol, before God. It was so popular, as I mentioned, that celebrity guest-stars and cameos abounded. Actors of the day would line up in droves to be a guest star on the show. Vincent Price, Burgess Merideth, Julie Newmar, Eli Wallach, Joan Collins and even “Mr. Television” Milton Berle all made recurring appearances on the show. This is not to mention the “wall-crawling” gimmick employed in the show where the aforementioned cameos popped out a window to chat up Batman and Robin. Folks like Sammy Davis, Jr., Dick Clark, Jerry Lewis, Edward G Robinson, the Green Hornet and Kato—

Wait. What? (Told ya I was going somewhere.)

Not unlike an infamous episode of the original Star Trek series (it was called “Assignment: Earth” BTW, and it failed as a gateway to Roddenberry’s next sci-fi show, as well as being one of the worst eps of Star Trek ever) the network used the popularity of Batman to serve as a launch pad for their next superhero show, The Green Hornet. Like the TV/movies of the 90s, Hornet was originally a radio serial. The guys behind Batman wanted to capitalize on their show’s popularity by introducing the next superhero team that would surely eat up the airwaves.

Well—surprise, surprise—it didn’t. The show played straight to the goofiness of its parent show, and I guess at the time audiences weren’t in the mood for “serious superheroes.” Hell, even TV’s Superman George Reeves was a humorous, light-hearted and gentle guy, not the conflicted Kryptonian we know and love today. The Green Hornet as TV wasn’t a total loss though. It did manage to survive one full season, and got some respectable reviews. More importantly, the show introduced a grateful world to Bruce Lee, who played Van Williams’ valet and kung fu sidekick Kato. What was the neat sticking point of the short-lived series, which was pleasantly not campy like Batman was (the producers must’ve heard the air going out of Batman’s whoopee cushion and tried an about face towards better ratings elsewhere). It was also probably the first interracial team-up in prime time TV. Yeah, yeah, there was Jay “Tonto” Silverheels on The Lone Ranger, but he was played more like a subordinate. On The Green Hornet, however, despite Kato being the Hornet’s aide-de-camp, Lee’s character wasn’t a stereotype and more or less an equal—as far as characterization was concerned. Lee’s Kato was sharp, tough, funny and also did a lot of winks-and-nods to the audience about who was the “real brains” of the Hornet’s operation. Though the show was short-lived, Hornet had it’s moment in the sun thanks to Lee, who we all know went on to bigger, better, more ass-kicking things.

I guess based on that small cachet alone, The Green Hornet earned the latest—quite possibly last—radio/TV-to-movie adaptation treatment. However, the fact it dropped in 2011 is kind of puzzling; raping and pillaging the video vaults for celluloid destruction is so last century. Especially if it’s ravening for delights a big budget allows, with their name stars and a director who’s been known to make good on colorful movie promises.

Hang on. More on that later. The answers will come. Have faith…

The curious thing about print media—magazines, tabloids and above all established newspapers—in the 21st Century is that, despite all the competition from the Internet and social media, established, well-written newspapers can still be bastions of not only delivering the news, but also an inexpensive gateway into world we live in, at home or abroad. The most successful papers can defy the law of diminishing returns by wit, grit, great writing and integrity. It’s how most media empires started a century ago. Ask Hearst.

James Reid (Wilkinson) established said media empire with The Daily Sentinel, LA’s last independent newspaper. With only his hard-nosed approach to the telling the truth about the ugly aspects of the City of Angels, he stands tall above the other easily bought-and-sold journalists that plagued the city. He’s had his pulse on the finger of LA, and has reported all the glam, glitz, shams and sh*ts that the city represents, his integrity never wavering.

Then there’s his son, Britt (Rogen).

To call wastrel Britt a party animal is akin to calling a junkie a “heroin fancier.” He’s been living off The Sentinel’s—and his dad’s—millions for over, like, two decades. And what does Britt have to show for it? Damage fees for reckless parties, endless hangovers and babes laid waste in his bed whom he can’t even remember their names (okay, so it ain’t all bad).

James demands of Britt time and again as to how could he take over the family business when he’s endlessly recovering from one night of debauchery onto the next morning of debauchery? Britt assures his father that he has plans, or rather really good excuses.

But when James dies unexpectedly, it falls to Britt to head up The Sentinel in his father’s stead. Britt always knew his dad was a scion—albeit dickish—of hard-nosed truth. What’s Britt? A walking bar tab. There’s no bloody way he could ever run a first rate newspaper, especially since daddy held the reigns for so long. Britt soon realizes, away from the Jacuzzi and the endless open bars, not only that he’s wholly incapable of filling dad’s shoes, he can barely fill his own.

It takes a lousy cup of coffee one day—a threat to his hallmark of self-entitlement—to get Britt’s dander up. Who’s responsible for this swill? It wasn’t James Reid’s mechanic Kato (Chou), who has a gift regarding not only coffee, but also custom-made tech in general. Turns out that Kato became James’ valet, but wasn’t too keen on it. He would’ve bailed years ago, but the opportunity to work on James’ collection of classic cars proved to be too much of a temptation. Kato was such a good little elf, James gave him free reign of his garage to indulge in all of his tech ideas, some of which James actually green-lit.

Dad never green-lit anything to Britt, not even respect.

Anyway, Kato earned the respect Britt never had. Such a drag. But after a long day of espresso, beer and the sense of self-righteousness they bring—also the pair having no love lost for their late benefactor—Britt and Kato decide to defile the late James’ headstone as a drunken lark. In Kato’s souped-up ride, it’s off to the cemetery.

But things go all tits-up, as they often do.

Before Britt could hiccup, a crew of toughs assault a young couple—a simple, easily ignored story that James Reid would’ve reported. With only the zeal drunken panic can bring, Britt lays a haymaker to a thug and Kato kung-fus his way through the rest. Both bail and thank their lucky asses that no innocents got hurt. But this altercation—aeons away from Britt’s cushy bed—plants a seed. This was a random act of violence in the City, but it happens everyday. Not to Britt, or even Kato. But to see it, hell get involved in it? Britt and Kato aren’t cops. The police have bigger fish to fry.

But this sh*t happens all the time. And a lot of criminal bigwigs—the kind of d*ckheads Britt’s dad would fearlessly expose—profit off of these muggings. The scales fall from Britt’s eyes, assisted by too much adrenaline. It felt good to save some people, someone other than himself. First time for everything.

After all the ballyhoo, Britt shares many more beers with Kato, and both get all amped when the local TV news captures their exploits.

“We’re heroes!” Britt screams. And that’s when it really hits him. The words planted by his late dad coming out of his mouth.

Britt figures that the best way to thwart the organized crime gangs’ activities is to create a target; a united front, if you will, against an uber-criminal. Put the whole “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” axiom to the test. When all the thugs are after the guy whose been scotching all their delicate affairs of drug-dealing, extortion and creating general mayhem, they’ll get all reckless in pursuit and the cops’ll have easy leads to follow.

Britt and Kato—with his gift for tech—will become superheroes! No! Anti-heroes!

Only old school crime boss Chudnofsky (Waltz) ain’t buying this latest scam in a lifetime of scams.

Chudnofsky has been around. He’s been a serpent slinking the gutters of LA long before Britt and Kato’s antics were barely a fart in the wind. Whoever the calling card belongs to, Chudnofsky has no pretense—or fear—of any marginally successful upstart that might potentially upset his delicate balance of crime and profit. Who gives a sh*t how cool his ride is, or his getup? Or his kung fu sidekick? And what real criminal leaves actual calling cards at the scenes of their crimes? Idiots. There’s a lot to be said for being quiet, methodical and carrying a double-barreled pistol.

That’s the trouble with interlopers confusing themselves as would-be crime fighters: it’s always spectacle over substance.

Not unlike the headlines on The Daily Sentinel, now run under the auspices of a lushy, spoiled, ne’er-do-well with a green mask, a boss ride and a kung fu/tech master wingman who patiently waits for his time in the sun, Britt’s alter-ego The Green Hornet exposes crime in a more in-your-face way than the paper ever could.

Now if only Britt could keep off of the f*cking chaise lounge, pool-side…

How Hornet plays out ties in directly with it’s troubled birth. When I asked earlier as to why this kind of film adaptation—after its brethren died a cold death at the turn of the century—was made in 2011 when the practice is so outré, the truth is odd. Well, not really considering how Hollywood works (which I’m still trying to figure out, and may never do). Anyway, I don’t think the nostalgia tag alone was reason enough why Hornet had to become reality. I think it was partly out of frustration.

Y’ever hear of “Production Hell?”

For those who haven’t, here you go (for those who have, feel free to skip ahead, you lazy sods): sometimes a movie project fails to get off the ground, despite all the hype and/or goodwill Hollywood dumps into its development. But no matter how much press and promise the execs deliver, sometimes movie projects just can’t gain traction. Be it budgetary concerns, securing a good script and/or writer, casting disputes or just a lot of hurry up and wait, some movies just languish as concepts rather than actual productions. Said concepts linger in the Hollywood backwaters—endlessly on hiatus—in what is know as “production hell.” A good example of this is another movie covered here at RIORI: the eventual execution of Watchmen by Barnum-like director Zack Snyder. That film fell under the guidelines of The Standard in every which way, but not might have if the film hadn’t decayed in production hell for 20 years since its initial proposal.

Hornet is another casualty of production hell. To answer the question of why make a movie based on a radio show well into the 21st Century? How that creatively bankrupt ship sailed lies within the kooky machinations of production hell. Hornet was originally slated for release in 1997. Nineteen. Ninety. Seven. That’s almost fifteen years prior to the film’s eventual release. It was also back then that the TV/radio show-as-movie trend was in full swing. The only reason I can divine as to why Hornet finally saw the light of day was to cash in on this century’s current version of movies lifted from Michael Crichton novels: the superhero gimmick.

Right. I mentioned that Hornet as a visual entertainment spawned from the Batman series. Technically the Green Hornet wasn’t a comic book superhero, but sort of sided that way thanks to Bats. Then again, I often shamefully point the finger at Hollywood for trying to make a buck based on audience’s ignorance, which they often succeed. These kids don’t know nuffin about no Batman teevee show, let alone some offshoot with a dead martial arts legend as actor! Crank it out! Let’s see if she sails!

Cynical you say? Damn skippy. You know how marketing works: if it makes money, ram it into the ground. Keep it going as fast as f*ck as possible before the bubble eventually pops. Besides, folks these days have attention spans like gnats on Red Bull. Entertain the brutes! It’s akin to the old Doritios slogan: crunch all you want, we’ll make more.

Hmm. Well, perhaps Hornet was better off in production hell. Hollywood sure didn’t profit much from its eventual birth. As an example to how a film gets mired down in production hell, Hornet suffered from the trifecta of roadblocks that keep a movie’s production down in the trenches.

First, a suitable director couldn’t be scored. Believe it or not, director Gondry was approached back in ’97 to helm the project. This was well before he entered the spotlight with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Hornet was supposed to be his debut film, but it got passed on and on to the likes of Stephen Chow and even Kevin Smith—who I think under his watchful eye might have made the movie work betterbefore eventually landing back in Gondry’s lap again. Hot potato, hot potato. Here we went on the money-go-round.

Then there was the writing team to consider. The likes of Edward “Robocop” Neumeier and Christopher “The Usual Suspects” McQuarrie were tapped, but it finally fell to Rogen and buddy Evan Goldberg to create a new script from scratch, eschewing the hard line the original Hornet had and instead injecting their usual goofball histrionics into their final product. In all fairness, Hornet was funny, but perhaps too much so to translate into an action movie. The final product is slathered in the ribald tones of Knocked Up and Superbad.

Finally, the casting. Uh, no one fit the bill as the leads. So since Rogen and Goldberg held the pen, and no one else could be qualified to deliver the lines, Rogen got to wear the mask (ably backed by Chou’s Kato). Rogen is the anti-leading man, and the last guy you’d ever smell to don the cape as some superhero, radio show or no. Doubtless that this also was gimmick, maybe capitalizing on the comic actor’s rising star in order to pull a bait-and-switch as he’d pull a Michael Keaton like in Burton’s Batman.

No. Not really. Not at all. The Green Hornet was your typical Rogen farce, but with some really boss action scenes tempered with his trademark snarky repartee. Take it or leave it. By its turnout, I don’t think most folks took to The Green Hornet.

The overriding theme of the movie is what I call “controlled hamminess.” The acting isn’t bad. It’s serviceable, but it lends very little weight necessary for an action vehicle, even if it’s a comedic romp like this one. I’ll cut to the chase: as far as I can see, regardless of the role he’s in, Rogen will always be a schlumpy quip machine. It’s his bread-and-butter, and he’s in that mode 100% of the time. It goes so far as when I once saw him on CNN espousing the need for congress to grant more research money for further studies in finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, and even that delivery was riddled with jokes and barbs. CNN. Congress. Alzheimer’s. Yuk yuk yuk.

Don’t misunderstand me. Rogen is a funny guy, and he gets a lot of good lines in the movie (hell, he wrote half of them), but wisecracks alone does not make for an endearing lead. Does he have to mug in every movie he’s in, really? His Britt Reid as reckless hero can only go so far on one-liners alone. The schtick gets repetitive, and what’s really repetitive is the reserved scenery chewing, the aforementioned ham in action.

The whole cast is a combo of ciphers and caricatures. We have our spoiled brat Britt, sage Kato who knows everything (this is not an exaggeration. Kato knows everything), bubbly and over-eager Cameron Diaz—who seems to be revisiting her role from 1994’s The Mask—as Britt’s secretary and Waltz as an underworld boss with an inferiority complex. We got no subtlety with this rogues gallery, which makes for a very one-sided movie watching experience.

I say one-sided because the movie feels like it’s ignoring the audience. The cast is clearly having a ball tearing it up on screen, but like a heated conversation you’re witnessing, not contributing to, you kind of want to tap Rogen and Chou on the shoulders and say, “Hey guys? Remember me?” Nah. More jokes! More explosions! More drinking!

Still, this one-sidedness lends a few perks. If you don’t give a sh*t what the audience thinks, then you’re free to ramp it up, get all hammy, flip us the bird and carry on, carry on. And boy, does Hornet carry on. It can best be described as having an odd, anti-Lethal Weapon vibe. The movie’s a “buddy cop” story to be sure, and Rogen and Chou have chemistry with good humor, and their antics not only create a mixed bag of funny/action, but cement the whole “who gives a sh*t?” feel to the movie.

The ham-tastic acting also adds to this lightheartedness. All the players have a just slightly under the radar one-dimensional characterization that adds to the humor without making it dissolve into pure camp. The comedy aspect helps a lot, especially since the action takes a back seat a lot of the time. I’ll admit I was snickering a lot watching Hornet, almost exclusively at Rogen’s wisecracks. Chou got a few good lines in too, but on the whole, it was Rogen’s show all the way. It kind of reflected the mentality of the original Hornet TV show. Van Williams’ Britt Reid/Green Hornet played it very straight, almost dry and totally opposite Rogen’s constant jokey banter. Williams never cracked a smile, but Lee did.

Back in the day, when the classic Green Hornet show was on air, it was considered a joke—a passive joke, mind you—that Kato was the true brains of the outfit. The “man behind the curtain” if you will. That subtle character dynamic comes to the fore here as an outright gag, almost as a refresher lending some seriousness to the job of superheroics against Britt’s endless, clueless bantering. It also enhances some racist undertones, which were decidedly shied away from on the TV show.

The movie does seem to exaggerate said undertones on the TV series. Very little then—being the progressive 60’s—put Williams or Lee under the lens as the first interracial team of heroes. I’d like to think that Lee was such a charming actor, such room for either bleeding-heart white guilt or shooting a spotlight on the mixed team-up made the whole social context superfluous. Williams and Lee made a good team, straight up. While Williams was grim, determined crime-fighter, Lee got to be funny, smart and lighthearted in his role as the “subordinate” sidekick. He got the best action scenes overall.

The on-the-nose social commentary or maybe exercise in irony to the layman is played to the hilt here in the movie. C’mon, for those who saw it, is what we want to remember from the TV show as a complement to Batman—with all its corniness—merely the introducing the first inter-racial duo (Okay, I suppose I Spy did it first, but that show was all about subtly, going along with its whole “espionage” theme. I wasn’t remembered for high action—let alone kung fu—only a very young, pre-rape accusation Bill Cosby palling around with TV stalwart Robert Cup) or the launch pad for Bruce Lee’s rise to fame? The implications were vital then but hackneyed now. Why play on this play-for-keeps spin for entertainment’s sake? It’s really weak and insulting, very uncool for 2011. It’s a glaring black spot on an otherwise lighthearted and funny film.

Another aspect about the movie—and other would-be, 21st Century comedies of its ilk—I disliked it the endless, winking pop culture in-jokes injected into a story that is ultimately designed for an audience-at-large to not get said in-jokes. The whole thing I said about not giving a sh*t about what the audience cares for can be freeing, but when taken too far you are really alienating the audience. After a while, the jokes morph into the standard, razor-thin plot of your typical episode of Family Guy. Sure, the cast and crew get it, but shame on you dear viewer for missing the joke. Too bad you weren’t there at the brainstorming session at Columbia. It’s just baiting for the fading demo, and rather cynical for the rising.

Still, for all its broad and lenient takes on the legacy, Hornet is terribly amusing, something the old radio serials and TV eps were not. Decidely not. Back then, “serious” superhero show just plumb didn’t exist. Hell, refer back to Batman. Nowadays, most comic book movies are besotted with drama, gravitas, endless navel-gazing only punctuated with the occasional one-liner or winking joke. It’s a Shakespearean thing: inject comedy right before tragedy to amplify the drama. It’s been done so often over the past decade that a would-be superhero flick littered with non-stop jokes, puns, wisecracks bucks the trend. This might be the most refreshing—and eventual downfall—of Hornet. It goes too far here. We’ve been set up across two acts to fall into the trap of info-dump in the third.

Hornet’s third act seems forced, especially after 90 minutes of joking and rather nifty, albeit limited action scenes. At this point, it’s all about the collateral damage. There’s so much of it one should only see it as an extension of the winking joke running throughout the film. The final scenes, with all their whiz-bang, are incredibly forced. It’s like Gondry and company made a bum’s rush to compensate for all the fluff in the first two-thirds of the movie to inject a bit of heaviness now. So much so that the resolution and Britt’s redemption are crammed into maybe three minutes (at most) of hard story before sh*t starts getting all kerblooey again.

And holy f*ck do Gondry, Rogen, Goldberg and their accomplices throw everything into the kitchen sink and crashing through the window. After 90 minutes of a left-of-center action/comedy with a few cool scenes of chaos, Gondry tears the lid off the pot and the rest is pyrotechnics, shattered glass, more of that hamminess condensed like a can of Campbell’s and crazy car chases through multiple floors of an office complex. Extension of the jokes? You decide (I already did: yes).

Yeah, The Green Hornet was a big joke. It either ended up that way between all the nonsense the project was smothered with in production hell or the comedy Cuisinart treatment it got from Rogan and Goldberg. There were a some cool action scenes, rather funny one-liners from Rogen, Chou’s Kato was great (albeit an over-inflated version of Lee’s character from back in the day), those Black Beauties were awesome and Diaz wore a lot of short skirts. But overall, Hornet was jumbled, and came across as a relic of a time far removed from 2011. And now that I mention it, since Hornet was on the whole an action/comedy a la Lethal Weapon, thumbing its nose at all the rampant, heavy comic book movies of our time, wouldn’t this jumble be considered a relevant balloon-popping of the relentless Marvel titles gumming up the multiplexes now?

I dunno. Maybe. In the long run, despite its glaring flaws, Hornet was entertaining. Sideswiped of the nostalgia ticket and fingering its fellow comic movie contemporaries. It was dumb, and that’s not always a bad thing. In a cinema world of guys in tights waxing way too philosophical on the nature of being, a good fart joke is almost always welcome before the credits roll.

Oh yeah. That whole nostalgia market? Just keep your cards close to your chest. Whatever you personally regard as representative of your Golden Years Hollywood will never catch. They’re too busy trying to capitalize on someone else’s, who’s probably already dead.

Hornet sting!

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. I’m only saying so because I didn’t dislike The Green Hornet outright. It’s a lousy superhero movie, but it also doesn’t really try to be a good one. Consider it a time-waster; something you’d find on the TV some boring Saturday afternoon, with you having nothing else to do but tune in. It’s chewing gum, and that’s okay from time to time. Plus it’s funny, which is never really truly wasteful.

Stray Observations…

  • “My gun has two barrels. That’s not boring.”
  • Hornet has a lot of blue language for a PG-13 movie. Good.
  • “We’re just two guys who stole a head.”
  • The Black Beauty’s headlights are green. Nice touch.
  • “See you in an hour…”
  • Boy, Edward Furlong has really fallen on hard times.
  • “You need nunchuks then…”
  • Fun fact: The Green Hornet turned out to be quite the hit in Lee’s homeland, doubtless due to the “local boy from Hong Kong does good” story. The Chinese knew Bruce’s TV debut as The Kato Show. For the few Yanks that caught it, it was easy to see why.
  • “That’s a very big gun.”
  • I heard once that Adam West complained in the movie press that he wasn’t considered for a re-cast as his classic Caped Crusader role for Burton’s movie. This was in 1989. The TV series aired almost a quarter-century prior, Adam. Do the math.
  • “Go be a journalist! I’ll kick ass!”
  • The Black Beauty getting plowed under…I saw that ep of Mythbusters. Maybe you did too.
  • “Hand over the sushi!”
  • Hornet has a very cool, very eclectic soundtrack. Any movie that dares to bookend Vivaldi with Coolio’s “Gangster’s Paradise” deserves some mention.
  • “Let’s roll, Kato.”

Next Installment…

According to the NYPD’s criminal records archive, 1981 was A Most Violent Year.