Saturday, May 10, 2008

Speed Racer

A lot of movies, particularly in the last 10 years or so, have tried to blend the qualities of animation and traditional filmmaking, to create a kind of "live-action cartoon." As with most genre experiments, these films usually don't work. You tend to get stuff like Shoot 'Em Up that, in trying to mix and match the best elements of cartoons and live-action, wind up with a confused muddle that gets neither form right.

The Wachowski Brothers' Speed Racer is something else entirely. I'm not sure if this was even meant to be a live-action cartoon or not. It's impossible for me to tell you what Larry and Andy were going for. Unless the goal was to punish the cruel world that shunned their Matrix sequels, a sort of delayed cinematic revenge, I'm pretty sure they didn't get there.

The word "debacle" gets thrown around a lot these days. The Bush Administration. New Orleans Reconstruction. The Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis. But Speed Racer gives the word an entirely new meaning. This is not just one of the least pleasant and most inane movies I have seen, but also among the most confounding. Why make this movie? And for whom? And why do it like this? Just to prove that you can?

The story is labored and needlessly complex, involving corporate espionage, double-crosses, arcane racing rules and a whole shitload of backstory about dead brothers and vintage auto races. It sucks, and it makes the movie 140 minutes long, which is just entirely, insanely too long no matter how you slice it. Even if it were really good, that would be too long.

The basics are these: Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch, getting about as far from Into the Wild as possible) must compete in a variety of races to save his father's (John Goodman) racing company and defeat the insidious plot of corporate mogul Royalton (Roger Allam), who controls the world of professional racing and uses it for financial gain. He's helped by his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), his loyal and attentive mother (Susan Sarandon) and the mysterious and shadowy Racer X (Matthew Fox).

The Wachowskis created the "world" of the film using the same kind of technology that made Sin City and Sky Captain possible - shooting their actors in "green screen" sets and then plunking them down into an entirely computer-generated universe. In fairness, Speed Racer looks nothing like those movies. It looks as those movies may have looked if you had rubbed your eyes for two hours before watching them, then done a few bracing shots of absinthe.

I know that makes it sound good, and for a few quick seconds, during some of the racing scenes, it almost comes together into something. Every rare once in a while, I could feel the movie start to look less like a video game and almost maybe kind of get cinematic for a moment, before flipping around and turning back into an indecipherable jumble of brain-meltingly lame jokes and bright bursts of primary colors.

What I'm saying is, this movie doesn't look like any other movies, but perhaps that's because it looks like the stupidest piece of fucking trash I have ever seen. There's a reason no other director has used this technology to turn the movie screen into a coloring book that's been attacked by 8 ADHD-infected toddlers armed with a garbage bag full of magic markers and crystal meth. Because it's a bad idea.

In still shots, like the one above, Speed Racer looks almost beautiful, or at least pleasingly candy-colored and imaginative. But the movie is edited at such breakneck speed, and so constantly over-saturated with light and color and busyness, it just becomes an eyesore after about five seconds, and even turned kind of nauseating by the conclusion. The Wachowskis prove that actual showmanship and directorial prowess has nothing to do with technology or budgets or ambition or a willingness to go-for-broke.

Actually being a director is about having a keen eye, some basic visual sense for framing and composition and the confidence in your own ability to not show the audience everything you could possibly show them. Filmmaking is largely about making decisions about what to show and what to leave out. The Wachowskis want to leave nothing out, they will spin a camera at top speed for 140 minutes to show you every inch of the dazzling world they've created, and that's why they keep proving themselves to be sub-standard filmmakers. Again and again.

Take the sequence set at the elaborate, massive car factory. We spend about 10 minutes zooming down a long hallway taking in row after row after endless row of machinery, employees, car parts, equipment, and on and on and on, and in the end, it all becomes an indistinguishable blur, like a forgettable PlayStation cut scene. A movie like Monsters Inc. or even the Tim Burton Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (of which I was not a huge fan) does so much more with so much less - a hint at the size and mystery of the factory is more tantalizing than a constantly moving, buzzy but ultimately senseless 10 minute sequence. And because the activity going on is not itself interesting - it's essentially a tour of a car factory, albeit a fantastically large and, of course, candy-colored car factory - the entire purpose is lost, and the audience naturally stops paying close attention to what they are seeing.

Those are just the visuals. We haven't even discussed quite possibly the lamest, most obnoxious, poorly conceived script of the year. The dialogue, as in every script yet written by Larry and Andy, is tone-deaf and atrocious. Some basic elements of screenwriting, like foreshadowing, are so clunky and awkward here, it's genuinely embarrassing for veteran filmmakers.

(I mean, the scene where Trixie tells Speed Racer that, one day, she hopes he'll win the Grand Prix and they'll kiss in front of all the screaming fans? The 8 year old behind me could tell that was going to come back around, even though he had fallen asleep by the time it actually happened).

Surely I can't be the only one who has noticed that these two have zero sense of humor whatsoever. Bound is actually kind of a cool, funny movie, but it's really just because Joe Pantoliano figured out how ludicrous it was and decided to have some fun with the material. The entire Matrix trilogy is, essentially, joke-free.

Here, they've been given the task of adapting a silly children's cartoon that features a monkey as a main character. So you know that's not going to go too well. But still, the comedy in the film is absolutely gobsmackingly hideous.

It gives me no pleasure to bash a child actor, particularly because it's surely not his fault, but Paulie Litt as Spritle gives perhaps the worst child performance I've ever seen - he mugs uncontrollably, and his line readings are clearly coached. They might as well have just hired a stage mother to come on camera and perform the part as she hopes her child might.

This sounds mean, but I'll say again...This isn't the fault of young Paulie Litt. This is why you have directors. They're supposed to be there to try and get an actual performance out of this kid, rather than just having him jump around and generally be as irritating as any one human being could possibly make themselves. If he's not up to the kind of performance their movie requires, they're supposed to hire someone else. I harbor no ill will towards young Master Litt, but I wanted to punch him in the face at several points during tonight's screening.

I could keep going, but what's the point? Nothing at all works about Speed Racer. It's painful from start to finish. I actually found it a grueling experience, difficult to sit through and intensely annoying. Oh, and did I mention it's 140 goddamn minutes long? WTF? It's fucking Speed Racer! That's like every episode of the show placed back-to-back!


Anonymous said...

its reviews like this that make me realize old harry knowles over at aint it cool is paid for good reviews, because no movie that engenders this much rage can be anywhere near good. he actually compares it to the stargate sequence in 2001. yes. thats right. thank you for maintaining sanity.

Lons said...

Wow...Comparing it to "2001." Wow. I'm thinking a live web feed of Kubrick's skeletal remains would be more compelling than this nightmare.

Either he's a paid shill or we should send him the name of a good neurologist.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Studios have been courting Harry Knowles for years, putting him on private planes and giving him personal junkets. I even read a couple of years ago that the producers of a film of Buroughs' A Princess of Mars brought him in as an executive producer.

Dustin Sherrill said...

Thanks for the insightful & well written review of an awful movie.
Let me take a stab at your perhaps rhetorical questions: "Why make this movie? And for whom? And why do it like this?"
2)For kids to purchase merchandise.
3)So they can merchandise a video game that is just like the movie.

I gotta go, I hear that McD's is giving away Speed Racer Merchandise with just a purchase of a happy meal :)

1948-1949 Buick Shop Manuals said...

i like the graphics, very cool 3d, and monkey was very funny also....

1948-1949 Buick Shop Manuals