Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Speed Failure

Spout has an interesting piece by Karina Longworth on why Speed Racer's box office failure ($18 on opening weekend with a $120 budget. OUCH) might be bad for "the cinema" some critics think it's trying to kill. Okay, one critic. That was the attention hording Armond White. I hear what Longworth is saying (and I love Bound too, nice shout out) but...

...defending the Wachowski's under "auteurism" is dangerous ground. Sure they have a point of view but do they make good films? Comparing them to Michael Bay is futile. It'll be unpopular to say but isn't he in his own banal way, just as much of an auteur as they are? I know people like to think of him as a hack. But "auteur" doesn't mean "good", it means "author" and can't you recognize Bay films as having one? Don't they scream "Michael Bay!" I'd argue that they do. Not an author I want to read, y'now, but still...

Also, calling Speed Racer "beautiful" is a stretch. I saw it last night and it's like it snacked on the f/x from Tron, black velvet paintings and old kaleidoscopes. Then, cuz it was still hungry and monochromatic (!) and whatnot, it swallowed the The Curse of the Golden Flower rainbow castle set whole, devoured every Nintendo, PlayStation and Xbox it could get its hands on. Post meal, it ingested a few mushrooms for good measure... and then vomited it all back out again to be photographed by Pierre et Gilles. Or that's what it looked like to me. And isn't that a more suitable aesthetic for, say, Dazzler?

I think that's a fair question.

The Brothers Wachowski don't seem to have any self editing skills and to borrow a Project Runway's judging phrase 'I worry about their taste level'. You can applaud Speed Racer as its own peculiar contraption, I'll give it that. But the contraption is not even a car... which is disappointing. It doesn't move like cars do. Speed could just as easily be driving an airplane or a sleek sofa for how the "contraption" moves... backflips, sideways without slowing down (as if wheels can pivot in any direction, although they don't which makes the driving scenes nonsensical), any which way... or every way at once. Even Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which could fly and swim, behaved more like a car.

The movie works from time to time (its mostly committed to its experimentation) but it's messy and undisciplined. It experiments and then forgets to experiment. It revs it's engines and forgets to go. Or it goes to nowhere in particular. It comes to crashing halts for dialogue scenes, bereft of any ideas about human interaction, even though you can tell that they're meant to be played all goofy Spider-Man sincere). But sincerity needs to be felt. Even rainbow colored sincerity.

Speed Racer is definitely of the new post-Bourne school of action films where storyboarding, geography and physical suspense are not the issues at all... action films being all about abstraction now what with their disorienting multiple angles, supersonic cutting, blurred color and zoom pans. I sometimes wonder why action films cost so much to make. The new action films really don't have to make any physical sense so why not just recycle your big shots in different order for each scene, maybe flip a few images upside down or horizontally? Toss the scenes into the air like 21 Grams and wherever they land call it a day? The scenes, the cuts, the action would play virtually the same.

I hate to sound like an old man 'kids these days!' type but I'm so nostalgic for the early aughts. And that was not long ago. I long for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings or Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon when I watch action flicks. In those great genre flicks, you always understood exactly what was happening despite fast editing and bounteous action. The fights, chases, and collisions never wanted for intensity (if anything, understanding what you're seeing makes them more intense and "WHOA!") and the directors never once forgot about their actors or the story arcs during the fights. It seems so revolutionary not even a decade later.

About Speed Racer's actors: "Spridle" must be put down before he mugs his way through any more films. John Goodman and Susan Sarandon make do. I love my Christina Ricci in (almost) anything but aside from the googly-eyed endearing way she delivers Trixie's signature "cool beans!" and the fact that she already looks like a cartoon, the character is inconsequential. And Emile Hirsch... Oh, Emile. What can we do with you? Give me something Emile! The camera is actually on you. You're not part of the ensemble. You're the lead.

Does it sound like I hated it? I don't think I did. Like I said, it is nearly always itself. That's something. And it wants to be for kids and I'm not 8. It also wants, like many movies, to be a video game. I personally like video games. They're fun. But I'd rather play them than watch them. If I'm watching I'm just impatient for when it's my turn with the control pad. C+ (?)

Have you seen Speed Racer? If not have you braved the 7 minute free preview without protective goggles? Did you experience retina burn, throbbing temples or did you love the abstraction of this "ride"? To each their own. Do tell...


Burbanked said...

EXCELLENTLY written review, Nathaniel! I haven't seen the movie, and was so very excited to do so...and then SR's opening weekend came and I started reading reviews and then it all went to hell very quickly. What's fascinating to me is how very impassioned the reviews have been, both negative and some - including Dennis Cozzalio's terrific rave - positive. When I see that kind of commitment, that dedicated and expressive writing, I tend to think that the reviewers are frustrated that something so obviously in search of art has failed so greatly.

"It is nearly always itself", you write, and that kind of semi-defense of a filmmaker's efforts is, I think, a compelling reason to at least give a movie a try. I'm still tempted to go see it on the big screen, even though it will likely boggle my eyes right out of my head.

And you must be onto something, because you referred to Michael Bay as an auteur and I didn't kick my laptop across the room. Well done.

Dame James said...

I think you hit the nail on the head labeling Michael Bay an auteur. Just because you are an auteur, doesn't mean you're any good. And the opposite is also true: just ask William Wyler or George Cukor, two fantastic directors who really didn't fit the auteur theory.

RJ said...

I. Wanted. to. Kill. That. Child.

Beau said...

Honestly? A bit astonished by all the negative press headed it's way. NO, it's by no means a disciplined film, but I can sure as hell say without guilt that I enjoyed it more than the banality that was 'Iron Man'.

Katey said...

Michael Bay graduated from the same film studies program that I did, and the department chair has always insisted that he is a real cinema artist. She even wrote the introduction for the Criterion Collection edition of Armageddon. So you're not alone in your opinion, though you're perhaps more unbiased.

Your review is yet another addition to the collection of amazingly colorful critics' responses. They've really brought out the big guns of metaphors for this one-- the Rotten Tomatoes page alone is a pleasure to read.

NicksFlickPicks said...

I haven't been anywhere near this – I haven't even seen a preview – but I loved this review.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

The more I read Speed Racer reviews, the more alone I feel. I couldn't get enough of it, and one of my friends even forced his family to see it twice more. My only critique would be that the villain's exposition was too quick and confusing. Also, Emile Hirsch was taking it way too seriously. I think you hit the nail on the head with his performance.

Astonishingly enough, I liked Spritle. He was appropriately over-the-top, just like the rest of the film. It was nice to see a kid be a kid in a movie, instead of some wiser-than-his-years hero or wisecracking sex symbol-in-training.

Susan Sarandon is beautiful.

Anonymous said...

DAZZLER! I wanna a movie about DAZZLER soon!

Mirko S.

ps: very good written review, and I agree with you regarding Michael Bay!

Anonymous said...

Nice comments. You're right, it does have its moments. I liked some of the fight scenes (my 5 year old niece loved them!) but then it's as though they have to go back to the boring stuff again, back to the grind.

Unfortunately it comes down to the very simple and all too common problem: bad script. They are not writers. Get writers.

Anonymous said...

P.s. I sorta thought that kid was okay too, Spirtle. At least he had a real character, which is more than you can say for the rest of them!


walter --susan sarandon IS beautiful. thanks for the notes on Emile Hirsch. I do want to like him as an actor but I really think he has the very unusual problem of UNDERACTING. I mean, that's preferrable to the usual problem but in his case i just need a lot more. thought he was too blank in INTO THE WILD too.

anon-- and that's exactly what bugged me about them. If you're the type of filmmaker that thinks dialogue and emotional scenes are boring. DON'T INCLUDE THEM IN THE MOVIE. because then you only end up exposing your lack of interest or range.

beau --Iron Man is more banal yes... but i think it's more entertaining and there is something to be said for that. But both are underwhelming. I think IRon Man is a better film but I'm not sure I have any desire to see it a second time whereas Speed Racer I could probably be convinced to just look at the experiments again and try to figure out why i don't think they work.

God, I wish the Wachowski's would make something as tight, low budget and ingenious as BOUND again.

Anonymous said...

My eyes didn't melt or even hurt. I watched "Speed Racer" with a certain amount of wonderment at the screen. Are they really doing this? It was a bit too long, a bit slow in parts but I was OK with the hummingbird speed edits and the cars that don't really act like cars.

And I completely agree with your observation on Bay being an "auteur".