Talking Movies

May 31, 2018

From the Archives: Speed Racer

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives brings up a justly forgotten disaster from the Brothers Wachowski, hammering home the lightning in a bottle good fortune of The Matrix.

Speed Racer is meant to be a family friendly CGI heavy summer blockbuster. It is however incredibly bizarre, and also camp, if we use feminist critic Susan Sontag’s definition that “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration”. There are scenes in Speed Racer that will make you want to bound out of the cinema as characters dressed in day-glo colours stand around beside hideously fake CGI backgrounds before getting into garish CGI cars. Kym Barrett, costume designer for Baz Luhrmann’s camp classics, designed the clothes but the Wachowskis don’t seem to have realised that they’ve ordered up the décor for a different film than the one they think they’re making.

The young (and implausibly named) Speed Racer idolises his dead racing driver brother Rex and grows up to emulate him as the flashback heavy opening action sequence pithily explains. Into the Wild star Emile Hirsch plays the adult Speed, who must be one of the blandest heroes to grace the screen this decade. Indie queen Christina Ricci’s presence in the film as Speed’s girlfriend Trixie is equally baffling. Sure she eventually gets to drive, pilot a helicopter and do kung-fu but it’s not like this script could have been confused with Bound when it arrived in her post-box. The Wachowskis are trying so hard here to make a kid’s film (Look at the monkey! Look at the silly little monkey!) that they seem to forget where their own strengths actually lie, while one must question the grotesque scene involving fingers being eaten by piranhas as being radically unacceptable for a kid’s film.

The film comes alive only in a very silly Matrix parody kung-fu fight. It is a merciful respite from the choppily edited incoherent CGI action which quickly becomes quite gruelling, you realise with horror halfway through the endless desert rally that this is only the second act and that there’s still a third act epic Grand Prix to go. Surprisingly (I say this as someone who always rooted for Locke against Jack) LOST star Matthew Fox is the best thing about Speed Racer. Fox is really enjoying playing the menacing, mysterious and masked Racer X. He is operating at a very high level of fun indeed for it to be obvious in such a taciturn role that he is Fassbendering his way through the movie. Yes, that’s a word, now. To Fassbender: to very obviously derive too much enjoyment from one’s work. See Irish actor Michael Fassbender, who spends the entirety of 300 grinning like an idiot.

Why the Wachowskis chose to bother with live action rather than a purely animated adaptation of the 1960s Japanese TV cartoon will forever puzzle. They will never lose one element of their craft though as Speed Racer has 2008’s most insanely euphoric finale.

2/5

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January 15, 2015

Wild

Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Coast Trail solo in the mid-90s to find herself, now Reese Witherspoon hikes it cinematically in search of another Oscar.FOX_3558.psd

Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon), an ex-junkie recently divorced from patient husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), sets out to walk from California to Washington State, a distance of over 1,000 miles – solo. As she walks she’s aided in her ambitious trek by friendly farmer Frank (W Earl Brown), helpful hiker Greg (Kevin Rankin), and unlikely named journalist Jimmy Carter (Mo McRae). But while other people can help with the logistics of hiking the PCT (her backpack is instantly nicknamed Monster by fellow hikers for its excessiveness), nobody can aid her when it comes to the inner emotional journey which takes up just as much screen-time, and is the reason for the PCT attempt: dealing with her grief over the early death from cancer of her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), and her anger at her ne’er-do-well brother Leif (Keene McRae) not pulling his weight.

Wild is not a likeable film. When Strayed begins the trek; not having tested how heavy her backpack would be when full, not having practised setting up a tent, and not having checked what kind of fuel her portable stove takes; you can only flashback to the detestably naive protagonist of 2007’s Into the Wild. Witherspoon is transparently attempting to win an Oscar. You can almost see the calculations on the back of a napkin: true story, multiple nude scenes, hard drug use, a story of redemption – Bingo! Worse, you start to suspect from Nick Hornby’s script that wannabe writer Strayed did the trek purely to be able to write a confessional non-fiction book about doing the trek. The American wilderness seems to inspire cinematically a sort of drivelling poetical mash-up of Frederic Jackson Turner, Teddy Roosevelt, and Jack Kerouac.

Strayed writes mottoes from great writers in station-books, and Dallas Buyers Club Jean-Marc Vallee is reduced to having her accompanied by a highly symbolic CGI fox… Wild is uncomfortable viewing because, as college boys Josh (Will Cuddy), Rick (Leigh Parker), and Richie (Nick Eversman) note, Strayed is the ‘Queen of the PCT’ – people obsequiously make things easy for her, because she’s a woman – but she’s also constantly threatened with rape, especially by roving hunters TJ (Charles Baker) and Clint (JD Evermore). It’s also unrewarding, because Strayed’s reaction to grief is Jennifer Lawrence’s self-destructive spiral in Silver Linings Playbook. But we see it, and are then asked to give a Kerouacian mystical assent to sex addiction and heroin as being somehow positive because they led her to the Bridge of the Gods in Washington – and her perorating non-epiphany of an epiphany.

Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘El Condor Pasa’ is effectively used, the scenery is great, Dern is vivacious, and Strayed’s interior monologue is wise-cracking, but Wild while engaging lacks true heart.

3/5

June 27, 2012

Killer Joe

1970s legend William Friedkin teams up with controversial Tony-winning playwright Tracy Letts for a disturbing slice of what might be usefully dubbed Kentucky Fried Noir.

Small-time drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) is in debt after his estranged mother plunders his cocaine stash. He suggests to his father Anselm (Thomas Haden Church) that they murder her for the insurance money which will be paid to Chris’ sister Dottie (Juno Temple), a plan supported by his father’s new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon). Bent Dallas cop Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) doubles as a hit-man, but with no money for a deposit he agrees to an unusual retainer – Dottie. But as Joe and Dottie grow close the murderous insurance scam unravels nastily and unpredictably…

It’s no exaggeration to dub this McConaughey’s Drive. From the exaggerated sound of his clicking lighter (not unlike Ryan Goslin’s creaking driving gloves), to his toothpick, to his insistence on rules and calm demeanour while making and executing threats of extreme violence, to his growing attachment to a girl softening his cold exterior, to the superhero outfit (here a fetishised hat, gun and badge), Joe has eerie similarities to Driver and McConaughey gives a revelatory performance. Friedkin may borrow from Refn’s bag of tricks but this is not equally virtuoso film-making. If you’ve read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls you won’t lament Friedkin’s precipitous decline after The French Connection and The Exorcist. His episodes of CSI: LV have probably been viewed by more people than most of his movies since 1973, with the possible exception of the tedious Rules of Engagement.

Killer Joe is all over the shop tonally. There is a piece of visual comedy involving a suit which is hilarious, which, like Joe replying “I like Digger” to the question why he doesn’t arrest the gangster Digger, and Chris being beaten up by Digger’s goons who then inform him “He really likes you”, belongs in another film. You don’t care for a second what happens to Hirsch which makes you realise how Joe’s query of Anselm; “Were you aware of this?” “I’m never aware”; exemplifies the unnerving stupidity of the characters. Friedkin also does for unnecessary female nudity here what he did for unnecessary male nudity in To Live and Die in LA. Temple bares all several times for no very clear reason, and Gershon flashes repeatedly, but the fact that Dottie is clearly not the full shilling makes a scene where Joe makes her strip naked incredibly disturbing. And that’s before we get to the unbelievable use of a “K fry C” chicken wing as part of the intensely theatrical climax in which persistent interrogation cuts thru lies – a bravura sequence that almost redeems previous queasy scenes.

This is a tough watch, and it’s debatable whether it’s really worth the struggle, but McConaughey’s performance erases all his disastrous rom-coms. He’s that good.

2/5

January 11, 2012

The Darkest Hour 3-D

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and Emile’s fine…

Emile Hirsch stars as a young tech entrepreneur in Chris Gorak’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama set in Moscow, and produced by Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov. Hirsch and his business partner and lifelong friend Max Minghella arrive in Moscow to launch a Russian expansion of their social networking site Globe Trot. Only to find that they’ve been royally screwed by their dodgy business associate played by Alexander Skarsgaard lookalike Joel Kinnaman, who has the advantage over them of actually speaking Russian and has stolen their idea. Disconsolate they retreat to Zvezda nightclub where they meet two users of Globe Trot, Olivia Thirlby and Rachael Taylor. Kinnaman shows up for a celebration of his business deal, but a fight is halted by a sudden power-cut that heralds the descent of alien invaders. What resemble glowing jellyfish descend from the skies and then become invisible, before shredding any human who touches them with a blast of electromagnetic wave energy that reduces them to their molecular structure instantly.

The Darkest Hour recalls Cloverfield in its quick setting up of a small group of people before realistically killing them off in shocking and suspenseful ways as they grapple with an alien invasion they don’t really comprehend. The script by Jon Spaiht was originally conceived for small town Ohio by Leslie Bohem & MT Ahern but became a far different beast when the chance to explore Russia opened up. Unfortunately the script lacks Drew Goddard’s wit and so, unlike Cloverfield, you’re not fully on board with rooting for these characters before they’re thrown into peril. The peril though is very well handled. A sequence in a deserted Red Square is memorable both for its stunning location and its tension as our heroes try to escape detection by an enemy they cannot see. Gorak’s love of 28 Days Later is clear from the joy he finds in filming scenes in a Moscow whose 14 million citizens have been reduced to a thin dust on the eerily empty streets.

These Americans and Australian are totally lost in an urban environment where even the street signs are in an alphabet they can’t read. Gorak makes daytime a source of terror as only at night can the aliens be easily detected when they light up electric outlets. The science is explained by a nicely deranged Dato Bakhtadze as Sergei, riffing on Brendan Gleeson’s role in 28 Days Later. Indeed the stars are comprehensively outshone by their support. Veronika Vernadskaya as Vika has some wonderful moments as the resolute teenage survivor. Gohas Kutsnko as Matveo is magnificent as a Russian soldier who has figured out to how to defeat the aliens and plans a Leningrad style resistance; he would rather die with Moscow at his back than survive in exile. This recalls Colin Farrell’s character in The Way Back, but with Bekmambetov advising we can apparently now regard this as a real Russian trait.

The ending stresses the note of hope too much, when the world’s population could now probably live comfortably in North London, but this is a solid piece of work.

3/5

January 22, 2010

Top 10 Films of 2009

(10) Crank 2 Jason Statham rampages thru the streets fighting mobsters, electrocuting himself, humiliating Amy Smart and generally incarnating lunacy in celluloid form. I saw it in a ‘private screening’ in Tallaght UCI and my brain is still slowly recovering.

(9) Star Trek I still have issues with the intellectual con-job involved in its in-camera ret-conning plot, and its poor villain, but this was a truly exuberant romp that rejuvenated the Trek franchise with great joy and reverence, down to the old familiar alarm siren, even if Spock (both versions) did act new Kirk off the screen. Here’s to the sequels.

(8) Mesrine 1 & 2 A brassy, bold piece of film-making, this French two-parter about the life of infamous bank-robber Jacques Mesrine saw Vincent Cassell in sensational form aided by a supporting cast of current Gallic cinematic royalty. Sure, this was too long and had flaws, but it had twice the spark of its efficient but autopiloted cousin Public Enemies.

(7) Moon Playing like a faithful adaptation of an Isaac Asimov tale this low-budget sci-fi proved that a clever concept and good execution will always win out over empty special effects and bombast as this tale of a badly injured worker having an identity crisis in a deserted moon-base was both intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

(5) (500) Days of Summer It’s not a riotous comedy, but it is always charming, it is tough emotionally when it needs to be and its systematic deconstruction of the rom-com is of great importance, as, bar The Devil Wears Prada, Definitely Maybe and The Jane Austen Book Club, that genre produces only bad films and is moribund, hypocritical and, yes, damaging.

(5) Frost/Nixon It was hard to shake the wish that you had seen the crackling tension of the stage production but this is still wonderfully satisfying drama. Sheen and Langella are both on top form in their real-life roles, backed by a solid supporting cast, and the probing of the psyches of both men, especially their midnight phone call, was impeccable.

(3) Inglourious Basterds Tarantino roars back with his best script since 1994. Historical inaccuracy has never been so joyfully euphoric in granting Jewish revenge on the Nazis, QT’s theatrical propensities have never been better than the first extended scene with the Jew-hunter and the French farmer, the flair for language is once again devoted to uproarious comedy, and the ability to create minor characters of great brilliance has returned.

(3) The Private Lives of Pippa Lee An intimate female-centred film this was a refreshing joy to stumble on during the summer and, powered by great turns from Robin Wright and Blake Lively, this was an always absorbing tale of a woman looking back at a life lived in an extremely bizarre fashion. Rebecca Miller inserted a great message of hope for the possibility of renewing yourself if you could only endure in an ending that averted sentimentality.

(2) Milk For my money a far more important landmark than Brokeback Mountain as Gus Van Sant, directing with more focus and great verve than he has shown for years, melded a convincing portrait of gay relationships with an enthralling and inspirational account of the politics of equal rights advocator and ‘Mayor of Castro’, the slain Harvey Milk.

(1) Encounters at the End of the World After a slow start Werner Herzog’s stunning documentary melds breathtaking landscape and underwater photography and a warning on the dangers of global warming with a typically Herzogian journey into madness whether it be an insane penguin or the eccentric oddballs and scientists who live in Antarctica’s bases.

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