Saturday, 10 May 2008

Speed Racer Vs. Total Critical And Popular Apathy

Perhaps it was always going to be a hard sell. With the fanboys turning their noses up at what looked like a candy-coloured movie for babies, critics followed their cue, leaving a handful of cinema-goers excited about the film and feeling like pariahs (yes, poor me). Genre movies (by which I mean sci fi, fantasy, or horror) always get a hard time from critics, and while I'm not crazy enough to suggest that any film that fits the category is automatically worthy of praise (there's a lot of genuine shit out there), I would hope critics realise they are all worthy of serious attention. I get that it's hard for a critic to really give all of their attention to every movie released each week, but even so, any movie that fits the bill described above (and often any movie that can easily be sneeringly dismissed as "typically Hollywood") will be the one to fall by the wayside.

That I expected. The UK reviews of Speed Racer have been horrible, a litany of horrified complaint about the subject matter, the performances, the plot, the running time, and most often, the visual style. "A movie of such garishness and impenetrability as to test the stoicism of any audience member older than 14," says The Independent's Anthony Quinn! "I can’t begin to describe how creepy this futuristic movie is," says James Christopher of The Times! "You have to be 12 to like it, and I have to say there is little or nothing here to remind us why we were all quite so excited about The Matrix," says Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, who also describes Lost as "interminable," and as a result is removed from my Love List and placed on my Shit List (he was already on probation for that appalling Iron Man review last week).

In fact, the only mainstream critic who liked it was Sukhdev Sandhu of the Telegraph, who still had reservations but seemed to get that it was for kids and not think this was a terrible strike against it. James Christopher seemed to think that it was a kids' film by accident. I won't even begin to point out the laziness of Anthony Quinn's review, which led me to believe he had lost his press pack and couldn't be bothered to even Wikipedia the source material; he also missed vital plot points that were not that hard to spot and then bitched about subsequent "illogicalities" (his comments about Speed's race up a cliff-face are the ones that made me mad, if you're curious).

I would have liked to have seen Nigel Andrew's review, as he usually responds positively to films that are a bit out there, but he appears to be missing in action at the moment. The most positive review I've read so far is from Moriarty from Ain't It Cool News, and he did what the "respectable" critics couldn't be bothered to do: forget his prejudices and watch the movie on its own terms. You could say he only gave it a chance because he's a nerd critic, but even now, with the film about to be released, nerd opinion is massively critical of it. "It's too garish, it's too childish, it looks stupid, I hated the cartoon, it's got a chimp in it, it's too colourful, it's too fast, it's too weird, it's not violent enough, it's not The Matrix." The Wachowskis seem to have made a movie that no one wanted to see. And they say Hollywood only panders to its audience.

From all of that it should be apparent that I have a huge chip on my shoulder about this, and not just because I regularly get annoyed when critics dismiss genre movies, an annoyance that has been exacerbated by my current reading material, Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures. It's a hugely entertaining read, and Biskind is a terrific writer, but it is laced with snobbery about Hollywood product, even -- at one point in the introduction -- claiming that its subject matter, independent film, appeals to "real people" in contrast to mainstream populist fare. So is the usual mass audience not made up of people? What are they then, figments of his imagination? Pod people? Androids?

Ridiculous. And insulting. There are millions of people out there (REAL people, even), that will happily watch a movie as transcendently beautiful and moving as Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...and Spring one day, and then watch Pirates of the Caribbean the next day and have a different experience but one that is no more or less real than the previous one. One isn't better than the other because it does certain things that the other doesn't even attempt. If one has to be judged better than the other, let it be by internal criteria. Which one of them succeeds best at doing what it was made to do? Otherwise we're just going to be bitching at every movie that isn't Citizen Kane for not doing the things Citizen Kane does. That way lies misery and madness.

Sorry, I digressed. As I was saying, I do have an inherent bias towards Speed Racer that makes me touchy about it, and that's down to my love of The Matrix. It's my favourite film, one I can watch over and over again and never get bored of. I still remember the first time I saw it, and the shellshock I felt. I've heard the criticisms of it, and the carping about the sequels (one of which I liked), and I'm not interested. If a movie or book or song is meant to touch the viewer and move them, that's exactly what The Matrix did to me. It was as if the film I had been waiting all my life to see had finally arrived, and it was better than I had hoped for.

So I'm defensive about the Wachowski siblings, and get tetchy when their work is criticised, especially because experience has taught me that film critics will happily dismiss genre work rather than engage with it, as if by dint of its mere existence it is not worthy of the effort. The reviews have focused on two things that are cardinal sins of that enemy of quality that is glossy Hollywood product: how little the story matters, and how emotionally empty the movie is because of the technology used to create the film.

I'll grant that these can be valid criticisms, but only if they are used against films that fail in those respects (and many do; I'm not crazy!), and not just as a kneejerk response against that nasty Hollywood product. Well, I risked breaking my own brain with fatigue and sensory-overload by seeing Speed Racer yesterday, and I can give you my opinion on these most pressing of questions. Does Speed Racer fail in telling a story? No. Is it emotionally empty? No. Here are some other questions that are less important than those, but need answering nonetheless. Is it perfect? No. Does it matter? No. Is it impossible to follow what is going on during the races? As long as you're not sitting in row H of the London Waterloo IMAX or lower, no. Will it make any money at the box office? Probably not, no. Should it? Unequivocally, yes.

Here's a litmus test for anyone watching the movie, and that includes critics. The film starts pretty much in the middle of a race, during which we flash back and forth between the race and Speed Racer's childhood, where he bonds with his brother and idol, Rex, played by Scott "Whiny Jason on FNL" Porter.

The race continues for a little while past that clip, with Speed attempting to break the record set by his brother, who we learn died in disgrace many years later, an event that shaped the lives of the entire Racer family, who are gathered together in the stands watching Speed racing. It's a busy few minutes, setting up the bizarre palette (which you will grow accustomed to much quicker than you might expect), the otherworldly future physics of the race cars (all impossible spins, leaps, and crazy drifting), the family dynamic, the history of the Racer family, their triumphs and failures, and the sadness that haunts them.

If you've gone in expecting a garish, empty movie for kids, the sophistication of the criss-cross narrative format might throw you (there's a particularly bold time-shifting moment in the middle of the film I liked), but there's nothing there to convince you of any emotional depth, until the very end of the race. What Speed does as he's about to cross the finish line is a marker for whether the film is for you. If you don't notice or care about his decision, you're not going to care enough about the characters to give the film a fair shot, and you might as well walk out of the room. If Speed's decision makes you grin, and you understand exactly what his motivation is and admire the character for making that choice, then you might end up liking the movie a lot more than you would have expected.

And I did. A lot. For the majority of the movie I was very happy, if not overjoyed, by what I was experiencing. After a few minutes of discombobulation, the visuals made a lot more sense to me once I had figured out what the Wachowskis were trying to do with them -- i.e., they weren't building a multitude of 3D environments to place the green-screened actors in, and they chose instead to create a number of photographic backgrounds and use them the same way backdrops in animation are used, to slide past each other in a parallax effect.

The only time the environments look fully rendered is during the race scenes, with the tracks featuring a more conventional perspective. The other trick used throughout is the scrolling of talky-heads across the screen, just as in anime. I made my peace with that a lot faster, as it's a technique used so often in Japanese animation that I've become inured to it, though I had a moment of WTF, simply because I'd not seen it used in live-action before. It's a terrific effect, carrying us through expositional dialogue (of which there is quite a bit) without sacrificing pace.

In fact, the dialogue delivered during races, often as a form of flashback, barely alters the pace of the action, so completely does it add energy to what would normally be dreary. A lot of people have said the races are confusing, but I thought they were pretty clean and edited with plenty of clarity, though perhaps if you're not used to the floaty heads it might cause problems (plus, if you're invested in the narrative, they carry plenty of dramatic kick, contrary to the opinion of the critics, at least IMHO).

Those races would mean nothing if they were not surrounded by solid performances and a carefully crafted narrative, and the one we get, concerning the struggle of the little man to succeed in a world where the monolithic nature of The Market stands in the way of artistic expression or freedom of the spirit, as well as the value of teamwork and learning from your mistakes, is immensely satisfying, so much so that the final race, which is already overwhelmingly filmed, achieves a kind of emotional warp factor as dialogue from the previous two hours slides past the camera, and you see just how important it is that Speed wins that race.

The hapless Christopher Tookey of the Daily HateMail stated that the film is meaningless and soulless, but if you've been sucked in by the carefully constructed narrative, the committed, irony-free performances, and the emotionally resonant conflicts and tribulations of our heroes (all of which he missed, instead carping about not knowing what was going on and hating the commercialism of it), the final ten minutes are filled with significance. As I said earlier, for the majority of the film I thought it was very very good. However, my final verdict was boosted by the brilliant, resonant, and totally satisfying finale, where my "overall grade" leapt up about three notches. All of this is code for "I cried at the end." Laugh, you doubters! I don't care.

And yes, it is resolutely a kids' movie. The majority of the humour lies in the actions of Spritle, played by Paulie Litt, who has annoyed some critics but cracked me up consistently, and his simian buddy Chim Chim. They pretty much spend the whole film eating candy, getting into trouble, and throwing Chim Chim cookies around (and I'll let you see the movie and discover what they are). Maybe it's not as "sophisticated" as Jacques Tati and his pipe-smoking japery, but it works and fits the tone of the movie perfectly. However, the plot itself, though featuring a manichean battle between a big corporate scumbag (played to perfection by Roger Allam) and the innocent small guy Speed, is filled with corporate intrigue, reflections on achieving an almost artistic perfection through sport, and what it is to be free to do what you want. That it touches on some of the themes of The Matrix (purpose, free will, self-belief) came as a surprise even to a fan like me. There's even a shot of stock-market notations scrolling across the screen that echoed Matrix Code, a nice little touch that made me smile.

One of the criticisms I saw thrown around (particularly in Bradshaw's review and the AV Club's withering dismissal) is that the film is anti-corporate and yet, hypocritically, is a heavily marketed and expensive big-budget money-making machine unleashed by the Warner Brothers monolith. I'll be honest, I was very worried about that, and reckoned I might have trouble reconciling it with any possible enthusiasm I might have for all the whiz-bang. Again, the Wachowskis surprised me. Roger Allam's Royalton is obviously an unscrupulous bounder and cad, uninterested in racing as sport (or art) and only concerned about how he can gain a monopoly over the production of a revolutionary engine by manipulating the outcomes of races. However, his enthusiasm for the machinations of The Market (revealed in a brilliantly demented monologue about share values) is just as complete and almost childlike as Speed's obsession with racing, even if it does involve ruining the tiny, independent Racer family. Other CEOs featured in the movie do unscrupulous things too, but end up siding with Speed at the end, realising that he is blessed with true talent and artistry in a way that moves them.

Glenn Kenny of Premiere says in his review that, "the narrative of Speed Racer, such as it is, is one of the more blatantly anti-capitalist storylines to come down the cinematic pike since, I dunno, Bertolucci's 1900," which is not what I took from it at all. It's made clear that the Racer family is a business, one that thrives on making cars that will be used by Speed to win races, mostly for the love of the game. But as long as they are allowed to participate on a small level within the financial framework of their world, keeping their aims low, and not worrying about being swallowed up by big business, then they're fine. They don't opt out of the capitalist system at all. They just want to play the game on their own terms, using their talent and ingenuity to make a living. Surely that's at the heart of the capitalist message, something Anthony Lane should keep in mind as he delivers paranoid and inaccurate comments about the film being nothing more than "Pop fascism" (because it features crowds cheering at a sport, for crying out loud). Why doesn't he rail against actual crowds cheering actual sport? Why is it only bad in the context of a movie? Gah!!!

If anything, the film is merely anti-monopoly, anti-greed and anti-corruption, showing how a single spanner in the works of The Market can crush those who abuse their position of power, thus turning the pursuit of prosperity into a game on a level playing field, with room for monoliths and minnows, both aiding each other and prospering from that cooperation and mutual respect. Isn't that what Thomas Friedman naively thinks The Market already is? Of course, we're meant to side with the Racer family exclusively, but it's clear that, just as The Matrix Revolutions ended with a detente between the machines and the humans, Speed Racer finishes with a respectful distance left between his family's independent company and the almost benign Togokhan Racing. At least, that's how I saw it. I will admit I was more interested in the story as parable about one man chasing his dream, doing what he is built to do, and not letting anyone talk him down, but that's just where my head is at right now.

But enough of this. I want to lavish more praise on it. I've never really been a huge fan of John Goodman unless he's in a Coen Brothers film, but this is my favourite non-Lebowski performance by him. His sincerity won me over totally, as he screws up with one son and is given a chance to get it right with Speed. It's a testament to the skill of the Wachowskis that the scene where he attempts to bond with Speed at his lowest ebb is one of the best in the whole film, a finger in the eye of the doubters who insist the film is hollow.

Even better than Goodman (and I know Canyon will be pissed at me for saying it again [You are right. Foxy must be destroyed! -- Canyon]), Foxy is terrific as Racer X, playing it cool and mysterious for the most part, before opening up in two scenes towards the end that rank as my favourites in the whole film. He's come on in leaps and bounds over the past couple of years, and here he's in top form. Plus, he gets to beat up ninjas! Seeing him do some Neo moves on a bad guy made my nerd chip overheat. Also, much love to Owen Paterson, whose production design is a delight from start to finish, and Michael Giacchino, who delivers yet another wonderful soundtrack.

So yes, since seeing it, I've had images from the film popping up in my field of vision like a fever dream; the undulating desert landscape rolling behind Speed, the Eadweard Muybridge homage in the final race, cars exploding into flame and glitter, camera flashbulbs changing into love hearts, highways seen from a distance as glowing ribbons of light, oversaturated colours glowing during the single shootout, and, best of all, a Chim Chim cookie in a bad man's face. Even though I've been happy to rail against what I see as a dismissive critical attitude to it, at least some writers have been eager to point out how gorgeous the whole thing, and it is. It's new. It's something you've seen before done in a completely new way, and as such is a triumph of design, vision, and uncompromising chutzpah. I'd hesitate to recommend it wholeheartedly, because it's obvious it's not going to be for everyone (and I have a terrible feeling it will lose out at the box office to both Iron Man and What Happens In Vegas, which would hurt my feelings as I cannot stand Kutcher or Diaz), but try it out, and maybe apply that litmus test. It might surprise you. Bravo, Wachowskis! Bravo!


sjwoo said...

I had no intention of watching this in the theater, but you know, I think I just might now after reading your review. Seeing the QuickTime HD trailer a while ago pretty much blew me away. Is the spectacle enough? It wasn't for 300. I enjoyed Sin City a lot, for both its visual aspects and its storytelling.

I must admit, though, I'm leery of the Wachowskis. I still think Bound is their best movie, though The Matrix is a close second. And even though not many seemed to like it, I really enjoyed Reloaded. Revolutions...well, let's not go there...

And speaking of Kim Ki-duk, have you see 3-Iron? He makes the oddest movies that are utterly memorable and completely watchable. I'm waiting for Time to come out on video. I can't believe how long it's taking.

Admiral Neck said...

The spectacle is definitely enough reason to see this on a big screen, but I'm still wary of recommending it. The fluffy tone of it has put a lot of people off, but I maintain that beneath that surface candy beats a heart made of steel. It's a kid's film, but that doesn't mean it skimps on the drama.

As I say, that's how I see it, but I'm so shocked by the overwhelming critical negativity and popular dismissal that I'm wary of saying anything else about it. It had a $20m domestic opening weekend; a really poor haul, barely outgrossing that frigging Diaz/Kutcher thing even though it was on hundreds more screens. I really don't like being the guy who champions something that everyone hates, but it keeps happening. Me and the other 14 people who loved this film will keep having to keep the torch burning until the kids who watched this and loved this grow up and praise it too.

I've not yet seen 3-Iron, but I do have a copy of it lying around, so I will see it eventually. I plan on looking through his filmography; SSAW&S is proof enough that Kim Ki-Duk is touched by genius.