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

May 27, 2010

I once was LOST, but now am found

So, predictably enough, ‘The End’ of LOST didn’t answer any questions (it probably raised more) and wasn’t really interested in providing any sort of actual coherent conclusion to the rambling nonsense that had preceded it.

Interestingly it seemed a mea culpa by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse as the reunion of all the most beloved cast members in Ultimate Los Angeles (which it was really – like Marvel’s Ultimate universe all the same characters appeared, slightly different, but still connected) was dependent for its emotional impact on flashbacks from the days when LOST was concerned with characters not plot mechanics and quantum mechanics. The moment when Ultimate Juliet and Sawyer remembered their life together and its horrific end had me in tears, but this season of LOST had little of that character development. The death of my favourite character Juliet was almost a summary of everything that went wrong. Characters were sacrificed to a material, (time-travel, Jakob, Desmond) that was never as interesting as Lindelof & Cuse found it, and evermore characters were introduced and killed rather than grappling with the show’s enduring and original problem of having too many characters.

When we talk abstractedly of ‘the writers’ it’s worth noting that no show could have sustained continuity over 6 seasons given the shocking revolving door of writers that the escalating absurdity of the show’s mythology just seemed to burn through – and this is a brain-drain of very talented writers like Jeph Loeb, Paul Dini, David Fury, Drew Goddard and Brian K Vaughan. The last season of LOST introduced new and uninteresting characters and then killed them off within weeks and got lost in creating at the last minute a ‘mythology’ that was meant to have been central to the show… The sure sign that a show is losing its way (24) is when the writing room starts to resemble this:

DIGGORY: I’m not sure this episode is working, it seems a bit boring.

LINDELOF: How many characters have you killed off?

DIGGORY: Just the one.

LINDELOF: Well no wonder it’s boring! Kill off at least three people! It’s not like we’re short of characters, and we can always bring the actors back in flashback, or in parallel universes, or as ghosts.

CUSE: Or as ghosts in flashback within a parallel universe.

LINDELOF: Would you stop being silly?

CUSE: Sorry. I, uh, noticed that your script is a bit short on dramatic conflict too.

DIGGORY: Yeah, sorry. No conflict seemed to grow organically from the characters-

LINDELOF: Grow organically?! What are we? A communist eco-friendly farming co-op? Just get Sayid to torture someone for God’s sake! Instant dramatic conflict!

DIGGORY: We don’t have Naveen around for this episode, he’s shooting a film in-

LINDELOF: Then just get someone else to torture someone for some reason! Sheesh, do I have to write every little thing around here?!

The ‘resolution’ of the mythology on the island was merely a means to an end – the fearful symmetry of a dying Jack lying down in the exact place where he first woke up, so that the show’s first image, Jack’s eye opening, was mirrored in its final image, Jack’s eye closing. It was a clever-clever ending but what preceded it on the island answered few questions. As for the Ultimate ending… I wrote in a 2005 piece on the first season that one of the most popular theories was “All the survivors are dead and The Island is Purgatory”, which was strenuously denied by Lindelof & Cuse, and rightly so. The Island it turns out was a complete irrelevance, which led the characters to Ultimate LA, which was Purgatory… Before the finale aired I listened to Coldplay’s Parachutes, especially ‘Everything’s Not Lost’, which I bought around the time LOST premiered in 2005. Thinking back I realised how I experienced LOST was by increasingly making fun of various absurdities as the show progressed and discussing the season finales, especially the third season’s which seemed to dominate conversation at a friend’s 21st. All those conversations were pointless it now transpires as apparently the point of the show was the moment when Christian Shepherd revealed to Jack that all the Ultimate characters were dead. This reunion of beloved characters was the spur for them to move on to heaven as he opened the church doors to an enveloping white light. As moments go it was quite beautiful, if not as powerful as Charlie blessing himself before dying peacefully, and the situating of this event in a Unitarian church with a stained-glass window depicting symbols from all the major world religions showed Lindelof & Cuse trying to make this a warm group-hug.

As a philosophical thought it was a nice interpretation of Purgatory – learning to take all that was best from your life and leaving behind all that was worst – but it had nothing to do with the violent mayhem it ‘resolved’. In the final analysis LOST occasionally hit sustained patches of greatness in spite of the mythology rather than because of it, and the mythology will sink its long-term reputation.

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