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New movie compromises Gondry's gonzo vision

The premise of Be Kind Rewind is pure Michel Gondry. The end result is anything but.

To say that Gondry has always marched to his own quirky beat is putting it mildly: He is, after all, the guy behind several offbeat experimental pieces (including the 2001 short One Day..., in which he plays himself as a man who's chased by his own life-sized turd), the excellent Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (for which he and co-collaborator Charlie Kaufman won scripting Oscars) and the underrated oddity The Science of Sleep. The plot thrust of Be Kind Rewind, therefore, can be pegged as unfiltered Gondry: After a mishap causes all the videocassettes in a rental store to be erased, a shop employee and his best friend must recreate the movies previously found on those tapes.

It's an idea that's pure genius, and with Jack Black and the always welcome Mos Def cast as the hapless amateur filmmakers, all the elements were in place for a no-holds-barred comedy, a hilarious satire that would take no prisoners. So what happened? Instead of dizzying comic heights, the film on view is shockingly tame and lazy, and the most dispiriting aspect about it is that the movie spoofs take a back seat to a stale storyline about, of all things, the efforts of land developers to raze the video store and erect a shiny new building in its place. If we wanted this soggy premise, we could just watch Barbershop -- or Dodgeball, or, heck, even Sydney White -- again.

Be Kind Rewind takes forever to even introduce its gag premise, slowly tracking the circumstances that lead Jerry (Black) to become magnetized and thereby cause the erasure of all the store's tapes. After this lengthy setup, we finally get to the good stuff -- what little of it exists. The low-budget "remakes" of Ghostbusters, Rush Hour 2 and Driving Miss Daisy are amusing, but many other movies are dismissed with merely one line of dialogue; among the casualties are Boogie Nights and Last Tango In Paris -- and just think how funny those spoofs might have been had Gondry been true to his comical cajones. Instead, the movie eventually abandons its high-concept angle altogether and spends the laborious last half-hour centered on the attempts of the neighborhood residents to save the little video shop.

Zzzzzz ... Wake me when it's over, or when Gondry again speaks from his warped mind rather than from an overprotective studio's bank account.

EVEN IN THE canon of high school flicks, Charlie Bartlett seems slight, but like its wide-eyed protagonist, it ultimately wins you over on the strength of its puppy-dog appeal.

The film's central character is sometimes reminiscent of Ferris Bueller and Harold (of Harold and Maude fame), its atmosphere cribs from Rushmore and Mean Girls, and its attempts at outrage stab in the direction of Heathers. But there are still enough original points in the script by newcomer Gustin Nash and enough pep in the direction of Jon Poll to allow this to qualify as more than just a nice try.

Charlie Bartlett (played by Anton Yelchin) is a rich boy who's just been kicked out of his latest private school, this time for running a fake-ID operation. Everything Charlie does is simply because he wants to be well-liked by his peers, a challenge that becomes even greater once his booze-and-pill-addled mom (Hope Davis), raising him on her own, is forced to send him to a public school. As expected, Charlie's dapper outfit and shiny attaché case rub the locals the wrong way, and he soon finds himself being dunked headfirst into a toilet.

But with an entrepreneurial spirit being perhaps his finest trait, Charlie soon manages to gain control of the situation. Armed with the prescription pills being supplied by his clueless family psychiatrist, Charlie enters into a business partnership with school bully Bivens (Tyler Hilton), whereupon Charlie provides the students with medical advice and Bivens handles the pills-and-cash transactions. In no time, Charlie becomes the most popular kid on campus, a development that doesn't go unnoticed by the burnt-out principal (Robert Downey, Jr.), an alcoholic barely holding onto his job, his sanity and his rebellious daughter (Kat Dennings).

Although Charlie Bartlett clearly positions itself as a fanciful comedy, it also takes time to comment on common stepping stones found in youth-oriented films, including the lack of communication between the generations and contemporary society's maddening tendency to believe any problem can be fixed with the scribbling of a pharmaceutical order. There's nothing particularly trailblazing about any of the film's revelations, unless you accept the suggestion that a bully's bad haircut might be all that prevents a pugilist from being a poet.

THE CINEMATIC CHAIN of events that led to the creation of City of Men actually began in the literary world with the publication of Paulo Lins' book City of God, which focused on the lives of young boys growing up in the crime-infested streets of a Brazilian neighborhood. In 2000, Fernando Meirelles co-directed Palace II, an acclaimed short based on the novel, before hitting the big time with his award-winning feature City of God, a stunning adaptation that placed on countless critics' "10 Best" lists (including mine) for 2003. A Brazilian TV series titled City of Men followed (with Meirelles serving as producer as well as writing and directing a handful of episodes), and now here's the big-screen spin-off of that project. I haven't seen the television program, but compared to City of God, this City feels underpopulated in terms of both acute characterizations and kinetic style.

Meirelles has moved on since directing City of God (his next effort was 2005's best film, The Constant Gardener), and here he functions only as one of the co-producers. His MIA status is clearly felt, as is that of City of God screenwriter Braulio Mantovani; their replacements, writer-director Paulo Morelli and co-scripter Elena Soarez, have crafted a movie that lacks the immediacy, danger and sheer suspense of its predecessor.

Here, the focus is on best friends Ace (Douglas Silva) and Wallace (Darlan Cunha), two decent kids trying to stay alive as they attempt to carve out fringe existences in a Brazilian slum lorded over by rival street gangs. None of the characters in this film are nearly as magnetic as the teens in God, and whereas the first picture largely succeeded by continually depicting the area as a self-contained war zone with no room for sentimentality, Men takes too many side trips into softer -- and more familiar -- territory. This is especially evident in its warmed-over look at Wallace's relationship with his ex-convict dad (Rodrigo dos Santos), a plotline that ends with a twist that doubtless felt more authentic in the halls of a film school than it would on the streets of Rio de Janeiro.

To see the trailers for the reviewed films, go to

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