Tokyo! (Gondry, Carax, Bong, 2008)

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While Pulse uses Tokyo as a disjointed spatial metaphor riddled with gaps and hidden rooms, this omnibus film sees Japan’s megalopolis as a fantastical and quirky environment harboring characters catapulted into the public forum by societal concerns and personal weaknesses. Michel Gondry once again attempts to create whimsey out of the extremely mundane, and once again fails miserably at harkening any emotional impact from his dry suffering artists. Having not been familiar with director Leos Carax, I wasn’t at all prepared for his entry entitled “Merde”, a baffling, antagonizing, and brutal allegory starring Denis Lavant as a pint sized monster living in the sewer who emerges only to fling grenades at innocent bystanders. It’s tantalizing despite being completely ridiculous. Bong Joon-ho, the brilliant director of Memories of Murder and The Host, ends with “Shaking Tokyo”, the story of a shut-in who’s structured his isolated interior life around the meticulous order of objects, a lifestyle that gets shaken to the core when an Earthquake opens his eyes to a beautiful pizza delivery girl. Like his feature films, Bong deconstructs genre with a razor-sharp attention to detail, in this instance the brief romantic moments between the characters share a physical connection with the crumbling city around them. In this uneven and strange Tokyo!, Bong’s entry stands out as the one vision able to grasp it’s complex surroundings.

Be Kind Rewind (Gondry, 2008)

After the aggravating artificiality of The Science of Sleep, it’s encouraging to see Michel Gondry retain some genuine humanity with his latest film Be Kind Rewind, a semi-fantastical romp surrounding an out of touch video store dealing with changing technologies and infringing developers. Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) and his protege Mike (Mos Def) run the failing VHS outlet with little worry, a business framed by a crumbling multicultural neighborhood of well meaning supporting players and kindred spirits. After Mike’s bumbling friend Jerry (Jack Black) becomes magnetized and erases all the tapes, the duo begins to remake certain films using a video camera and loads of creativity (the Ghostbusters example sets the standard right away). Of course, these “sweeded” films become a hit with the working class folk and provide a much needed spark for all involved. Be Kind Rewind depends heavily on this great hook (the exciting homemade remakes) to hang its mostly familiar underdog story. If the entire process feels a bit whimsical and far-fetched, its because Gondry moves deeper into sentimentality and farther away from his patented narrative craziness, which is both a blessing and a curse. Gondry seems enthralled with the montage sequences in particular, including the fascinating juxtaposition of all the films being remade captured in one long, engaging take. This structural digression from plausibility to a magical purity actually makes Be Kind Rewind a worthy throwback to old school Hollywood (Capra is the obvious example), where the hero redeems himself through historical revisionism, in turn finding solace and hope for the future. 

The Science of Sleep (Gondry, 2006)

Films that deal with dreamers and dreams in visually stunning ways often get a free pass when it comes to story. Hey, don’t worry, he’s dreaming, it doesn’t have to make sense. His character doesn’t have to evolve. The truth of the matter is French director Michel Gondry has already made his dreamscape masterpiece with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film whose memory based logic fits perfectly within the development of the characters. After Sunshine and the passionate Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, it’s sad too see Gondry go lazy and pretentious with The Science of Sleep. Like Sunshine, Gondry gives us the story of two young people looking for a connection, a delusional dreamer named Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal) coming to grips with his friendship and romantic notions for his next door neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Stephane is verging on insanity, his dreams of crumbling cities and evolving environments swiftly converging on his recognizable reality. Stephanie seems to be caught in the crossfire, both a play mate of sorts for Stephane in his dream world and an innocent bystander suffering the inconsistencies of his dynamic personality. Gondry’s amazing visual parallel for Stephane’s dreams starts off intriguing, but like his protagonist, becomes a repetitive monster. We get flying stuffed horses, underwater POV’s, a time machine, and an incredible typewriter/spider. But none of these creations has a subtext or leaves a lasting impression, mainly because Gondry never fully lets us into Stephane’s desires, his true self. We feel just as alienated as Stephanie, even more frustrated by this loose attempt at creating a complex character. Michel Gondry has an obvious obsession with disillusioned and well meaning protagonists and his technical skill in visually complimenting these men remains impressive. But The Science of Sleep displays none of the humanity his early films define themselves by, instead choosing to dwell in the quirky swamp of modern independent film cliche’s. Stephane might be going insane, but any compassion felt for his plight slows as he becomes a child for umpteenth time. Many characters cry themselves to sleep at night living in dreams instead of reality. The difference between great storytelling and whiney banter lies in the details of the person, not the gimmicks used to create their dreams.