09 May 2008

Review: Speed Racer

Genre: Action / Drama

O, Speed Racer. Streaming with lights and colors the equivalent of the {pop} of a little girl's juicy pink bubblegum and cracking its turns in just as sharp a manner, Speed Racer is easily categorized within the Red-Bull-lined walls of hall of the summer blockbusters. Its archetypical "good v. evil" plotline, fueled by high-octane - o, forgive me the automotive word-play - visual effects, is sure to delight any movie-goer who seeks only the blast-and-thrill of a harrowing ride through treacherous but ultimately surmountable terrain. Predictable down to its very core and fashioned together in a rather rapturous, rather than intelligent way, the film fails to be - well - it fails to be...anything other than what it ought to be. (Take a moment here to pause, if need be.) Seriously, people, why ought we automatically switch to 'decry mode' when a film like Speed Racer decides not to present us with a perspective that is novel or in any way subversive of the notions we had of it before its theatrical release? Is there something so inherently wrong with the good, old-fashioned summer blockbuster that fruit cannot be redeemed from its frame? I heartily stand by the answer "no" (to that second question). Speed Racer in my opinion accomplishes exactly what it set out to accomplish: a colorful and attractive revitalization in pop culture of a lore that has lain dormant since the end of its childhood hey-days back in the late 1960s - early 1970s - for that is exactly what Speed Racer is, a franchise mostly unplumbed and unknown by the masses of today's society. To offer up anything else would have been a consciously esoteric mettle, toward disregarding the majority of the film's potential audience - because, really, how many people can raise their hands today and then dutifully recite everything about the Speed Racer chronicles, how many especially from the generations of people born after the franchise's original hey-day? No, to offer up a different glimpse into Speed Racer would have been a mistake; as always, context must be first provided, in order to set the stage for a grounded and non-partisan debate about the more profound reaches of a matter. So, I applaud Speed Racer for this its orientation and all the more for the juicy plums and pears and apples and lemons with which it was able to paint its new adaptation, fruits that place it high as the bar for this 2008 summer season.

Now for the good stuff: Indeed, the makers of Speed Racer were able to find remarkable riches within their project that lifted the film out of its tried and tired categorization and deftly and jauntily placed it on the truly admirable level. The colors and contrasts that burst with all the exciting "Eek!" of pop art are truly beautiful decorations of the story and perhaps one of the two highlight-features of the film. They immediately nod to the high-energy and rapid, racing-directed focus of the plot as well as pay homage in their artful combinations to the era that bore them in origin, while simultaneously they amp up to date that original color palette and signal the planar situation of the reality within the film as somewhere beyond dreams (and perhaps adjacent to Roald Dahl's Wonka-land). Nowhere else could the phrase "Holy cannoli, Speed!" be uttered in seriousness and not receive an obligatory eye-roll or chuckle in response. They work well as a conceit too, for they epitomize the clash of the gaudy and immoderate and the wholesome and true in a way that is fantastically engaging; for they progress from blending and flowing and generally dazzling in the early stages of the plot, when it is difficult to parse the good from the bad, to astutely discriminating certain character sets and atmospheres from certain others in the later stages, when the natures of things are clear. As Speed and his team buzz with the sleek and rich combinations of navy blues with sunshine yellows, cherry reds with ripe oranges, and crisp whites with oil blacks without blowing out, the underhanded evil-doers reek in vomiticious combinations of sour apple with brick orange, garish gold with peacock purple, and thick turquoise with mud brown. I haven't seen such a good use of stylized, super-saturated color since another latent comic-book adaptation took to the screen: 1992's Dick Tracy (which coincidentally took home the Oscar for Art Direction that year - ahem). And of course the races would be nothing without them.
Speaking of the races: They were another great unexpected feature of the film. They were wonderfully choreographed and read much more like passionate dances than NASCAR trials. I suppose, this elegant choreography could be attributed to high-art ambition of the film-makers who were not so shy enough to prominently display within the dialogue of the film said ambition toward being more than just fast and loose imagery (see Susan Sarandon's Mrs. Racer's private conversation with Speed), but I'm not above appreciating the quality of something that is true quality, even if it be presented heavy-handedly in context. The flips and jumps, twists and turns, especially when performed in series on one of those narrow curves, were wonderful absolutely.
However, not everything about the film was wonderful; this is not a gushingly positive review after all. Among those things I found fault with were most prominently the cinematography, the introduction, and the directorial choices about certain things. Taking them in that order: I found the distance and the framing of the cinematography to be incredibly off. Why must everything be inspected so freaking closely all the time, Mr. Tattersall? It is a terribly one-sided move on your part and denies the spectator any real chance to orient himself within the new spaces we encounter, for even your so-called "establishment shots" are frequently crunched up from one side of side of the frame and incomplete. I found myself mentally shouting, "Pull back!", a lot while watching as well as "Be still!" during the non-racing scenes. It would have been nice to give your viewers those breaks from the constantly roving camera and - not only that but - it would have been smart to give your camera the same contrasts in motion and range as you and the art directors did in color and light, especially within this movie so hitting on sharp contrasts. However, I must commend you, Mr. Tattersall; at least your lighting and your angles, which were often soft and flat respectively, did aid the 2-D over 3-D composite feel that the film did (brilliantly) display (interpolating direct references to manga, comics, and the original Speed Racer among the contemporary effects while simultaneously sticking to the conceits of fantasy and high contrast throughout). But really, check your framings; your odd croppings did not go unnoticed either.
In fact, the introduction (i. e., about the first 7 or 8 minutes) was marred by your bizarre clippings as well as by other things - namely, the editing and the acting. Spliced too close together, such that the jumps were jerky and the actors practically stepping on each other's lines, that introductory period, which is designed to graciously induct the audience into the world of the film, was more like a series of sharp jabs to the face than a gracious induction. Fortunately that quality went away, but no one likes a sloppy, uncomfortable, and jittery start - especially not Speed. It leaves one feeling dizzy and rather like the other party was trying too hard.
The responsibility for this factor lies in no hands other than the directors'. The Wachowski brothers were able to keep their hands on this boiler-maker for the most part with a minimum of awkward hiccoughs, but there was a significant couple. That introduction was one; the switch-off during the Casa Cristo race was the other. Being unable to get Christina Ricci to really deliver during this her most active scene during the movie was the least of it. While the fight was happily choreographed and buzzed along as usual, the end results of it, the posture and the possession of the weapons, was something different altogether. Bear in mind, please, that this film is (as was said) a happy and non-subversive revitalization of a childhood-geared comic-book series! Do not give the firearms to Speed Racer and his team, the wholesome image of morality and decency!! It is soooo not in keeping with the message or the tenor of the entire Speed Racer franchise. It is just disturbing - jarring even - and cacaphonously dissonant from the flow of what they, the Racers, purport to be all about. People who say things like "Holy cannoli!" and "Jiminy!" have no business brandishing pistols and machine guns at their enemies. It's just not cool. (That said, I feel like I should address here the "shit" uttered by Speed during the Grand Prix, finale race. A far cry from issues like mortality and homicide [which subjects in a film that has its wiped-out racecar drivers whisked safely off of the course in a protective bubble are foreign matters anyway], one small instance of verbal 'impurity' on the behalf of the wholesome Racers is not going to crumble the keystone of their collective character. In fact, if used appropriately [as it was], it can become symbolic in this updating adaptation of their breaking away both from the clutches of Speed's greedy competitors and from the constraints imposed upon them by the reckonings and expectations of our society [i. e., from their original shoe-polish-shiny source material]. In other words, it gave them a non-calamitous edge at an instant when it was really sharp to do so. So, directors, take note: one "shit" = good, multiple loaded weapons in the hands of our model heroes = bad.)
In any case - putting aside these needling comments about morality - the film was a surprising success for me, a success I feel that can mostly be attributed to its other highlight-feature: Michael Giacchino's brilliant(!) score. Mr. Giacchino's music, made well-known in this bang-prone milieu of cartoons and cartoon adaptations (e. g., The Incredibles, Ratatouille), works fabulously well as the vroom behind Emile Hirsche's engines. Spiking and cascading at exactly the right moments and just generally placing a huge, positive bang! at the end of every major phrase, whatever the tenor, the score was the standout point of the film. I would not be surprised if its excellent work went out to garner more official acclaim at the end of this 2008 year in film. It was truly spectacular.
And, because I can't not address him, Mr. Hirsche was a sheer classic too. A great decision to expand himself, now off his Into the Wild success; he was the perfect man to step into Speed Racer's signature white jacket and visor. Good work (and great clothes).
Go, Speed Racer, go!

Grade: A solid B.

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