RIORI Vol 3, Installment 81: Greg Mattola’s “Paul” (2010)



The Players…

Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, (and the endless voice of) Seth Rogen, with Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, David Koechner, Jane Lynch, John Carroll Lynch, Blythe Dinner, Jeffery Tambor and Sigourney Weaver.


The Story…

A pair of dyed-in-wool British sci-fi geeks are taking holiday in the US southwest. Not just for attendance at the big deal Comic-Con, but also to scope out historic UFO sightings in the vast wilderness.

They get more than they bargain for.

Chugging along in their RV late at night on the highway they narrowly avoid a serious car crash. Feeling their civic duty to check on the driver, they’re beyond shocked to discover a for real alien behind the wheel.

Some smelling salts later, they learn his name is Paul, and he needs their help getting home.

It turns out for our trio, “home” is a relative term.


The Rant…

A while back I covered Sam Raimi’s Oz, The Great And Powerful, a rompy prequel to the classic Victor Fleming opus, the third (and best) cinematic interpretation of L Frank Baum’s opus, The Wizard Of Oz. I also went on record that I was never keen to fantasy. Wasn’t interested in Tolkien’s film adaptations. Never saw (nor read) any of the Harry Potter series. Never even was barely curious about watching (or reading) Game Of Thrones. Beyond Fleming’s idea of Oz, the closest thing to fantasy films I ever dug was…well, Oz, The Great And Powerful. Mila Kunis made for a cool Wicked Witch Of The West. As well as Meg Griffin, just to play to the fanboys.

Speaking of fanboys, despite being meh on fantasy I’m big on science fiction. Last time I waxed nostalgic on being exposed to Ridley Scott’s signature flicks, namely Alien and Blade Runner. Sci-fi films in the barest sense. Sure, both flicks took place in the future, where malign tech and nasty, slobbering xenomorphs reigned supreme. I also spoke of my young poisoning of the mind catching both Star Wars: A New Hope and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial in the theater around age six.

However neither of those pairings really stuck. They piqued my interest, sure, about “out there, somewhere.” But the sci-fi gateway drug was (surprise) Star Trek. That and a few Arthur C Clarke books and Time magazine’s compendium of how the universe worked. For sure. Bless your local library. And put down the damned smartphone.

Yeah. Trek. A giver. I remember the very time I got into it. I was 14, and rolling on the couch like a desiccated hot dog back and forth on the lukewarm washboard at your local Sheetz. I had my wisdom teeth impacted, and my jaw felt like a strained jack holding up a Mack truck. I all I could eat was yogurt and all I could do was churn on the couch and watch TV. It sucked.

Cold compact pressed against my mandible, I surrendered to the idiot box. Didn’t want to read or listen to music. The NES controller grew dusty. The remote was sticky in my mitt (when I wasn’t groaning rubbing my on fire jaw) as I channel surfed. Saw the usual “Disney Afternoon;” (yes, I was in high school and still watching cartoons. I had yet to experience the oys and joys of p*ssy and beer. We could both do worse). I was a fan of the wry DuckTales, the silly Chip N’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers and the very good superhero send-up Darkwing Duck. These pastiches ran from 3 PM to 5, where after the syndicated series’ reruns rerun.

Cutting to the chase, at clear 5 every afternoon the local cable affiliate aired both the previous and recent episodes of Star Trek: The Generation starring that lovable dork from PBS’ Reading Rainbow, Levar Burton. More on that soon.

Sooner than later, I had idly caught an ep of TNG once and saw big bro Levar wearing a golden hair clip across his eyes, wearing tight red pajamas scouring the deck of a damaged starship deck.

The hell? But don’t take my word for it. Ha.

Even at 14 I also dug Reading Rainbow. Our host Levar was a piece of work, promoting literacy on PBS. He came across, convincingly, as the cool older brother who knew stuff. Seeing him with a banana clip over his face made me ask “What the crap?” So with aching missing teeth, I stayed tuned in after Darkwing ended. And gradually the scales fell from my eyes.

I enjoyed the drama. I liked the dialogue. I dug the character interplay. The Enterprise-D looked like a mall in space. Worf’s ever evolving face was funny. I slowly got hooked. Darkwing what?

The affiliate was burning through the fourth season at the time during the week I learned. Saturday evening was last week’s ep followed by the latest installment. I punished my parents before the big screen to tolerate my new addiction before Saturday primetime. And a small win there. Once Paul Sorvino was a guest star on a TNG so even my stalwart Dad set the remote down for that episode.

I swiftly nabbed every episode I could nab. The older sh*t I rented from my local library (remember the 20th Century?) TNG became a fast addiction. I later checked out the original series to compare notes. The drama/humor/intrigue dynamic failed to falter. I was seriously hooked. Not a bad way to go for a stone cold sci-fi fanboy. Now stone cold.

So what else to do, when one is a Trekkie, anathema to the opposite sex, hanging out after school with all-female friends who loved to re-watch Aliens over and over who had no interest in my flaccid…that.

Star Trek-Con!

We went to a handful back in the day, right outside Philly. My friend’s dad was patient in driving us out to the convo (we all had lisences, but no car. How we suffered), dropped us all off at the convention center and spun back to the homeland ASAP. Probably didn’t want to get contaminated. He suffered our endless afternoons carved into the latest MST3K installment enough. He hated tribbles, I guess.

So we were let loose at the Trek convention. It was cool. Really. I mean if you were into sci-fi in all its guises—be it movies, TV, comics or related curios—the whole Trek theme fell by the wayside. Lots of booths with their hawkers peddling the above goodies, not unlike a malign, stellar flea market akin to a space opera wall of a TGIFriday’s shot through a Waring blender.

It was a circus. Folks dressed as out of shape Klingons. Folks dressed as the forceable Borg (lots of dead aquarium paraphernalia put to good use there). Folks dressed as Starfleet Acadamy recruits who could never pass the physical. Also writers, artists, actors earning some beans schilling their former stage and/or screen glories.

And the stars. The real reason why we came.

Consider this. There have been TV shows that have ran far longer than Trek in all its iterations. The original Law & Order. The Simpsons. Even Gunsmoke, before God. MASH still maintains the highest ratings for its finale pales in comparison to the mere three seasons the original Trek graced the grey screen, and us Trekkers get our conventions. It is to wonder.

Three stories from the front, in degrees of artistic appreciation of sci-fi openness that Trek allowed me. From up to down.

First: Sir Patrick Stewart. Capt Picard himself. He wasn’t knighted then, but a was bright light for us dorks. He was the primary guest on the list that day. We all sat in attendance, and Stewart let most of the Trek questions roll off his back.

Stewart suffered our endless TNG questions well enough. The rest of the time he promoted his one-man show of A Christmas Carol on Broadway, a big deal thing back in the day, prob’ cuz it was very un-Trek and most likely what the man needed as a prophylactic to chatting with Number One for the umpeenth about what to do with the dang communication breakdowns with the pesky Romulans.

But Stewart was a stage actor first, born and bred. I recalled when I accidentally saw I, Claudius on PBS (was probably searching for the latest Reading Rainbow installment). I took note of the actor playing Sejanus. That voice. Now the body attached to the voice was voicing to all us geeks. I smelled an opportunity, perhaps once in a parsec. I raised my hand and Stewart called me out.

“Yes, young man?”

“Mr Stewart, I understand you were a student of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The Bard never wrote science fiction. I don’t think there was any context at the time—

(laughs from the acne-ridden peanut gallery)

—however, I seen you on TNG for years and often wondered how the Shakespearean Method has been imprinted on your Picard character. It can’t be denied the method, but the setting, the scenes on TNG don’t really permit Shakespeare. Drama, yes, but also this context makes me curious. What permitted Sejanus to wear the Captain’s uniform? And to what end?”

(boos from the zits)

Stewart set the mike at his hip and snickered. He raised the thing back up to his lips:

“Young man, you do know where you are right now, correct?”

I didn’t falter. “Yes. We’re here at a Star Trek convention appreciating your appearance. But also it’s also my opportunity to sweat a respected Shakespearean actor to how he’s applied his craft to a space opera, co-starring a guy who pushed books and had the hair clip at the wrong end.”

(groans)

Stewart giggled, then grinned, “Son, I’m glad you asked me that!”

And he went into a tear about his time with the Theatre, TNG never really hammered on. I was glad. My fellow dorks weren’t. C’mon, if you were alone in a looked room with your favorite writer, would you really ask about how they held a pencil? Doubts even here.

The next late of this trilogy isn’t mine, but too sweet a treat to deny you bored readers. Still makes me smile.

An old roomie of mine was a Trekkie, and once made his pilgrimage to Mecca. Mr Banana Clip Levar Burton was a guest. Due to contractual obligations my crafty friend heard he wasn’t permitted to sign autographs. Pishaw. My buddy knew the secret knock. He cornered Burton after he left the bathroom and leapt on him.

“Mr Burton, can I have your autograph?

He waved his hands. “I’m not allowed to give out autographs, sorry.”

“Well, could you sign this?”

My friend waggled a book in front of Burton. A Reading Rainbow book.

Burton grinned, snatched the picture book from him and said “Gimme that. What’s your name?” He pulled a pen out of nowhere.

“…Lucas.”

Burton scrawled on the cover page: To my friend Lucas, keep on reading. Your friend, Levar Burton.”

Cool right? Better than catching the pick after Keef’s third encore solo.

And finally, the reason why we sci-fi morons congregate the way we do. For the big game.

My last tale hems the pants of my convention days. High school was ending and assumed maturity of going to college after summer. One last night flight. That and another jillion Aliens viewings waiting. You can take the gorilla out of the jungle, but…

We all went, me and my trio of proto-Ani Difranco friends. It was sovereign this time. We’d already seen the sights at the convo a dozen times over. Same hotel, same sh*t. There were only so many lead soldier Geordis for sale one could pore over. This time it wasn’t about the goods. It was the goods.

The guest of honor was Leonard “Mr Spock” Nimoy. We were thrilled. Doy.

The man had done it all. An old hand. Nimoy was a star of stage, screen, photography, writing, music (for good or ill), directing and all things logical. When he took the mic—shocker—standing O. It was funny. For decades we watched Nimoy’s exploits on TV and later on the big screen. We scrutinized every twitch of the eyebrow or ear. We ingested his lines. We saw him get McCoy’s goat regularly.

We never saw him smile. Let alone laugh.

Like I said, the guy was an old pro, and not just being an actor. He had been pounding the beat at Trek convos since their inception. Again, an old hand, and he had us all in the palm of his.

He came well prepared. He had a PowerPoint presentation, flicking through outtakes of TOS, explaining the minutiae of how the show was put together. We were enraptured. Some were drooling.

The cherry on the sundae was how Nimoy as Spock invented the Vulcan salute. “Live long and prosper” and all that jazz. The screenshots he presented were from an episode where Spock returned to Vulcan with his human buddies Kirk and McCoy as witnesses to some ancient Vulcanian rite of passage. There was a quick scene of Spock addressing the “queen” with the salute. We well knew the episode. It was etched in our Clearasil-scarred brains.

Nimoy paused the scene and calmly explained the scene and the gesture all we Trekkies do rather than shake hands with one another’s sweaty, mealy palms. The Vulcan salute’s origin. It’s a cool story, really. Even if your not a Trekker. Pull up a seat.

When Nimoy was a kid in Brooklyn, he hailed from an orthodox Jewish family. Missing temple on Saturday was verboten. It was Talmudic law. Best not piss the Big Guy off. Like most Christian practices, there was a benediction at the end of the service. May God bless you and keep you and so on. The Benediction usually occurs at the narthex, where the prelate and acolytes praise the congregation for their audience. JC approved.

The Jews have something similar, but at the front of the altar. Nimoy and his father knew the routine. Close your eyes, kneel, pray and don’t open your eyes. We’re talking don’t look, Marion.

Of course Nimoy did. He said he was six. Seemed logical at the time.

He witnessed the cantor with armed outstretched and speaking is Hebrew. His hands were formed in the shape of a familiar alien greeting, thumb and fingers separated in the middle of the palms. According to Nimoy, the gesture was a representation of the Hebrew character shin, which is supposed to represent a wish for a fruitful life, and also practice actions that would help others find their way.

Sound familiar? Was to us nerds. Nimoy co-opted the gesture and meaning for the Vulcanian salute. “Live long and prosper.”

All of us in the enraptured audience in unison went, “Ohhhhh. Okay.” Grins all around.

Cool Hand Spock suffered our questions well, with much patience and humor. I reiterate, guy was an old pro. Talked about goofing around on the set. What a card Shatner was, always pranking him. And DeForest “Bones” Kelley was really a sweetheart, miles away from cantankerous Dr McCoy. It was revealing. Not just hearing about how the sausage was made, but how communal the cast was. A family. Shat, Bones and Nimoy were buddies as well as co-workers. So were the rest of the cast of TOS.

It was not unlike us Trekkies. Most strangers to be sure, but not unlike rowdy Philadelphia “Fly Eagles Fly” football fans, vintage vinyl collectors and online gamers. It’s a community, often congregating in their chosen forums to revel and high-five over their culty, pet hobbies. It enables camaraderie that, let’s face it, outsiders wouldn’t “get.”

I believe that is the appeal of both Star Trek cons and Birds’ tailgating alike. Like-minded folks immersing themselves in their fetish, where strange, disparate weirdoes can make friends. Among others who “get it.”

Like with sci-fi cons, fast friendships can be formed, forged in the arcana of Star Trek, Warhammer and the rioting that followed the Cubs winning the series. Bonds formed with people who get it, and snubbing the poor schlubs that don’t. Their loss. Resistance is futile.

Well okay, one more: a prime example of this is a tale from one of my bar buddies, also a Trek enthusiast. He attended a con where James “Scotty” Doohan was the guest of honor. He was in ill-health, kinda dinged in the head, recovering from a stroke (which left him speechless. Literally) and stuck in a wheelchair. There was a lightyear long queue for getting his autograph. According to my bud, the stroke rendered his penmanship a bit wobbly. Read: inscrutable.

My pal patiently waited in line. He noticed that Doohan could barely hold his Sharpie and basically scrawled a blur across the fanboys well-worn copies of Mr Scott’s Guide To The Enterprise. My friend wasn’t interested in scribblings. He wanted to chat with The Man.

His turn came and with no pretense he greeted him in a tone that could wake the lame and the halt (which was kinda the point):

“Jimmy! Lookin’ good! Hey, what do ya say we ditch this joint? Got a great bar upstairs, How ’bout we do some shots of whisky?”

Doohan’s droopy face lightened up. Grinning, he craned his head up to look at his daughter who was escorting him and smiled. She shook her head no. Scotty frowned.

“That’s okay, Jimmy. When yer kid has to hit the head we can skeedadle!”

Again the grin, again the frown.

“Anyway, heard you were signing stuff?” He held out a well-worn VHS jacket of Star Trek: The Animated Series. Doohan got the role on TOS based on his rep for being a skilled voice actor. Doohan was Scotty as well as Arex as well as all the ancillary voices voices on both series.

“Do me the honor?”

Smiles again. Doohan raised a shaky, outstretched hand and accepted the case. He held the Sharpie in both hands and slowly, carefully wrote on it in very clean script, “For my friend, George.” Clear as a sunny day. Too bad shots didn’t later ensue in celebration. A few months later Doohan passed away, but my bud has his “real” autograph to remember him by.

That’s kind of family feeling Trek cons create. As do tailgates and the SXSW festival. We get it. And so sorry if you don’t and then scoff. Your loss.

So now, let’s fall down the sci-fi geek wormhole with a pair of unwitting pals accidentally finding their “thing” out in the real world.

Well, “surreal” world might be a more apt description…


Two sci-fi geeks in blood from Britain, Graeme and Clive (Pegg and Frost, respectively) take holiday to attend a big deal Comic-Con on the West Coast (and we ain’t talking Wales here). But that’s just the cherry on the sundae. They’ve rented an RV for a road trip across the American southwest to check out all the alleged alien activity over the past century (and we ain’t talking rogue migrants here).

When their boat gets all waylaid near Nevada’s forbidden Area 51 by what first appears to be a DUI driver, well there goes the voyage for truth and fun. Until the driver scrabbles out of the scrub and introduces himself.

His name is Paul (Rogen).

He’s a Grey, a casual term for a space alien. From outer space. Outer. Alien. The contact of is the holy grail for these two twits.

He needs help getting home, not to mention sanctuary from the gun happy agents who need to get him back to the lab.

(And we ain’t talking Alexa home here. We’re talking “phone…” Oh, you get it, tosser.)


I’ve read that when it comes to very Albion, very dry comedy Simon Pegg (also Scotty!) and Nick Frost can do no wrong. From Shaun Of The Dead to Hot Fuzz, they are Britain’s answer to a Millenial Laurel and Hardy. Us moviegoers can’t wait to see what another fine mess they get themselves into.

After seeing Paul I think the secret to their success is staying in the UK. Their rapport may be regarded as a novelty to us Yanks. But take these two goofs across The Pond and set up camp in Vegas? Erm.

Make no mistake, Pegg paired with Frost is very funny. But taking them out of English context render them cannon fodder. Namely, ain’t these limeys cute? Especially in the Nevada desert? Does England have a desert? Haw haw.

That speaks that their’s is a very palpable awkwardness for our wonder twins hamming it up as strangers in a strange land. That schtick is like a sliver or popcorn wedged in one’s gums. Pegg and Frost don’t belong in America, let alone the community their fave sci-fi con environments provide sanctuary from the ugly, real world. It’s kind of a cheap joke, fish out of water and all that implies. It’s been done before, and done better.

To the point, Pegg and Frost are poorly fit for Paul. Their interplay is based more on finger-pointing than hands across bellies. It’s kinda mean. And redolent of the unfun stereotypes that fanboy geekiness invites. The “innocents abroad” gig only goes so far.

That’s really the shame of Paul. It’s rather one note when there was comedy gold to mine. Instead we get sci-fi geekdom in its stereotypical bad light (which ain’t hard come to think of it), drug jokes and sh*tty chemistry between all the Yank players; save Bateman (and surprisingly not Weaver), Paul suffers what I’ll call “joke cramming.” Namely, there are so many funny cast members all pitted against each other to be the funniest. It plays like a fridge door with way to much elemenary school art: hard to compare, but necessary completeing the whole. Whatever that is. Try to get a nine year old to cough up her postmodern muse, which is likely a melding of Care Bares and Melanie Martinez. In short, Paul tries to be cohesive, but the kid ate up all the paste.

Beyond Pegg and Frost, Paul does have a great, eclectic cast. It’s too bad they all were reading different scripts (which I suspect was mostly improv). Our two blokes, despite being the stars, are quite underused. They’re both underused, especially in light of the background rogue’s gallery backing up the story. Sorta more on that later.

I think the lick of salt you take with Paul is that it’s kinda like a funny X-Files/ET send up. Maybe outright parody. However the thing about parodies is that they are deliberate send ups of war horse movie tropes. Think Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Spaceballs and the rest of Mel Brooks’ CV. Not to mention the Police Squad movies, the Airplane! movies and practically the entirety of the ZAZ movies (save Ghost, which later was sweet parody fodder in other parodies, like The Naked Gun 2 1/2. Hey, wait a minute). Parodies are winking and let audiences in on the joke. Bad parodies resort to Family Guy-esque non-stop pop culture name dropping to blur the corners. If parodies require Google, they’re lame. It’s one thing to be let in on the joke. It’s another to be overloaded and force to surrender to a critical mass. Keyword being “critical.”

Paul tries to be sweeping in skewering anything and everything sci-fi geek/classic sci-fi film it’s like shopping at a flea market for used electrical sh*t. It plays like this:

“Hey look! A used Sega Saturn! For just a buck!”

“…There’s bullet holes in it.”

“No big! Previous owner musta got pissed at f*cking up nights Into Dreams too much.”

“Those look like cordite burns.”

“Ah, it’s a buck. I’ll take it home, clean it up and we’ll be in PTO land faster than you can call 911!”

Then you call 911 as your mancave descends into the Seventh Level. All that wasted beer. Tsk tsk.

In other words, this flick could’ve been great. A real find. Then it leaves you dumb. And hard to figure if that was intentional. That’s the trouble with poor parodies, you eventually can’t differentiate the inside jokes from the outside, name-dropping ones. It’s gets boring. As Steve Martin claimed: comedy is not pretty. True, but it should defiantly bore as Paul did for me.

We’re sorta get into the above now. I keep my promises.

At its core, Paul is a buddy/road trip comedy. Almost always a good thing to waste time with. Think Rush Hour, Rain Man and all those classic team-ups with Bob and Bing. The key to such flicks are surefire gold chemistry between the leads. Or course Pegg and Frost have that spark, duh. However the supporting cast has a vital purpose also: to bounce off our bumbling heroes. Despite the awesome supporting cast bombarding Pegg and Frost with limitless comedy fodder, our limey dolts are too passive. Way too passive. They only react to the inanity, not respond. Pegg and Frost made their mark in zany comedy by interacting with absurdity that plagues them (e.g.: remember the record throwing scene in Shaun Of The Dead? Yeah, like that). In Paul, they are the records, bombarded with insanity and Frost just sits in the RV’s passenger seat while Pegg traipses off to the bathroom. Sorry, I meant loo.

I understand that Paul is another frenetic comedy directed by Mattola, but there stinks of a of rehashed Superbad schtick lurking beneath the Area 51 gags. The buddy comedy. A quest to complete. Jon Hader as a “cop.” What worked once doesn’t always work again, and Superbad is one of the wifey’s fave films. I could not in all honesty suggest we watch Paul together. There’d be too many sci-fi, pop culture refs to punch up. And down the toilet we go.

I feel the ultimate fault in Paul‘s execution is a lot of stilted dialogue. Not what is said, per se but how it’s delivered. Senta, RinaldiSenta. Letting Rogen run his motormouth for 90 minutes does not automatically equal funny. We need some time to breathe. Instead we choke on the bullet-time gags about drugs, sex, sexy drugs and drugging Kristen Wiig with too much truth (there was a gag that could’ve gained traction. Instead it fell into a short-bus version of Tyson’s Cosmos. Coulda worked).

That’s a pretty apt way to send off Paul: it could’ve worked. There were some bright spots, like Weaver winkingly chewing scenery in the final act. Or Tambor’s wry cameos. Of the sense of belonging between our fanboy/hereos in the final scene to share. Hell, even the heartwarmer (kindly slower scene) between Paul and Danner. Everything else was shot through like poop through a goose. Too much pant pant. You gotta lay off the relentless silly in order to take time to giggle. And taking time to see a Grey suck REDACTED don’t count. Sorry.

Based against those bright spots, there was still a lot of wasted potential with Paul. Was it funny? Sure, it fits and starts. Were Pegg and Frost at the top of their game? Nope. And nope. Was the cast awesome? Approaching. Did Paul require, nay, demand pop-culture name-dropping to push the plot along? Uh-huh.

It was a mish-mash of one-liners, winking jokes, tired Hollywood tropes whipped up in a Cuisinart? You just won a prize. Still—believe it or not—I couldn’t bring myself to dislike it. Call it my soft spot for the SF cons of youth. Or Frost and Pegg, together again. Or that shared guilty pleasure sense of being one with the cosmos reveling in one’s culty fetish, and the welcoming outstretched arms from fellow freaks.

I guess my real, buried soft spot for Paul was the (admittedly flawed) tribute to guys like Clive and Graeme. Brothers in arms. Loving tales about illicit autographs, contraband booze just out of reach (when one could really need it) and a venerable Shakespean actor suprised and then respecting an honest question.

Sh*t like that never seems to happen watching The Simpsons. Or Firefly.

Or watching reruns of Black Books.

What? Too obscure? No more than debating the life-saving value of Prince’s Batman soundtrack.

Geek.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild relent it. I didn’t hate Paul, but I was sorely let down. Still, there were enough winks to keep me smiling and watching. Only logical I gave it a “mild.”


Stray Observations…

  • Are comic-cons really like this? Yes, yes they are.
  • “Pizza!”
  • Cute Raiders nod.
  • “You know you’re grown men, right?”
  • Who’d’ve thought Bateman could ever have such a great flat affect?
  • “Get away from her, you bitch!” A very meta ha!
  • Is this whole flick a tourist trap? Ha!
  • “Seems rather fitting.”

Next Installment…

Cate Blanchette must reunite with Tommy Lee Jones in an uneasy alliance in order to find The Missing  family they both have lost.


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

 


0608bekindrewind


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