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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February 10, 2016

Deadpool

Seven years later Ryan Reynolds gets to play Deadpool properly, but X-Men Origins: Wolverine is neither forgotten nor forgiven in this uproarious scabrous assault on cliché, and the fourth wall.

Deadpool International Quad

Deadpool begins with a credits sequence insulting all the crew (save the writers), and listing not actors but their tokenistic functions (British Villain, Hot Chick). Riffing on Batman Begins’ chronology we begin with Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) shooting the breeze with cabbie Dopinder (Karan Soni) before a massive motorway bloodbath, and get his origin story in flashbacks between arguments with Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) over said bloodbath. Once mercenary Wade Wilson did bad things to worse people for money, hung out in a merc bar run by Weasel (TJ Miller), and hooked up with equally abrasive hooker Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Then, attempting to beat terminal cancer, he said yes to a recruiter [‘Agent Smith’] (Jed Rees), and ended up being forcibly mutated by sadistic Ajax [Not his real name] (Ed Skrein) and Angel Dust (Gina Carano).

And lo, Deadpool… His mask looks like Spider-Man’s but there’s an R-rated lip under it; quipping about genre clichés, and anything else he might want to rip. There’s an Adult Swim vibe to proceedings, think Robot Chicken and The Venture Brothers: sarcastic questioning of the safety of Professor X’s mansion getting the immortal reply [from now Russian Colossus] “Please… house blowing up builds character,” Stan Lee making his most unlikely cameo ever, and Deadpool mumbling “It’s weird. This house is really big but there only ever seems to be the two of you in it. It’s almost like the studio couldn’t afford another X-Man…” FX’s Archer [Corinth is famous for its leather!] is also present spiritually in a festive sex montage [International Women’s Day – Ouchie!] and the abusive Archer/Woodhouse dynamic between Deadpool and his elderly blind housemate Al (Leslie Uggams).

Alas, the Fourth Wall. [And good riddance…] It never stood a chance against Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza’s creation. Imagine Seths Rogen and Green riffing over the first Wolverine and you’re close to how Deadpool feels. Deadpool’s origin is V’s in V for Vendetta, but such rehashing doesn’t matter because this movie knows the perfect Iron Man film would be all Tony Stark, no Iron Man. Deadpool’s fights are nifty, but the draw is the scatological absurdities director Tim Miller has Reynolds and Miller improvise over Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s script. Superhero landings, female superhero costumes, Hollywood; nothing is off limits [“Looks are everything! Do you think Ryan Reynolds got this far based on his acting technique?”]. Especially Hugh Jackman and the first Wolverine; there’s an inexplicable flight deck in a scrap yard in order to parody its finale.

Guardians of the Galaxy sprinkled absurdity over stale MCU story structure, but Deadpool mocks what little structure it doesn’t discard. Not since Wanted has a comic-book movie swaggered so unpredictably, and it’s to be hoped people respond to this the way they didn’t to Scott Pilgrim. We need more.

5/5

February 19, 2011

In Defence of Comic-Book Movies

Ah inconstancy, thy name is critic. At least when it comes to comic-book movies…

Cast your mind back to the summer of 2005. In June Batman Begins was hailed as intelligent and dark, a triumphant re-invention of the Dark Knight. Fantastic Four was then greeted with a universal groan of “Oh No, Not Another Comic-Book Movie!” in July. In September A History of Violence was enthusiastically received: it was compelling, disturbing, and, um, a comic-book movie. This predominant snobbish attitude towards one particular source of movie adaptations is unwarranted. There has never been, nor will there ever be, enough original screenplays to feed the beast; cinema is forced to cannibalise other mediums. Films have been made of out novels (Never Let Me Go), plays (Rabbit Hole), novellas (Shopgirl), short stories (The Box), poems (Troy), magazine articles (The Insider), TV shows (Star Trek), and yes, Hollywood even managed to get out a two hour film out of the country and western song Harper Valley PTA.

Why then do critics have such scorn for comic-books, just one source among many? The quite often blanket condemnation seeks to encompass a whole medium in one idiot generalisation. Can you imagine ignoring the variety and depth of the novel form which encompasses Cecilia Ahern as well as Fyodor Dostoevsky with howls of “Oh No, Not Another Novel Based Movie?” How then can one condemn a form which includes Maus and Palestine as well as Batwoman and Witchblade. It is odd that comic-books should be so peculiarly obnoxious to some critics as a source of stories given their properties. Comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema being a combination of words and images. Indeed all films are storyboarded scene by scene, that is, drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally did the obvious and treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were a storyboard and simply shot what was drawn. It’s just a pity they picked such a goddamn lousy comic to pay such veneration to.

Hollywood is feeding into the production line a whole medium of already visualised blockbuster adventures dripping with characters that possess enormous and positive name recognition. The comic-books that tend to be plundered are probably more suited to the serialisation now possible in television, but have to be Hollywood blockbusters owing to the special effects budgets needed for convincing superheroes. Heroes though showed that it was now possible to deliver convincing effects on a TV show and, utilising the expertise of comics great Jeph Loeb, create a serial story that hooked viewers. Its cancellation though leaves the multiplex as the natural live-action home of the DC and Marvel universes. And with great budgets come great responsibilities. To minimise the risk of flopping mega-budget movies for the most part (Avatar, Titanic) play things extremely safe; quite often it’s not the comic-books being adapted that are dumb but their film versions, as studios dumb then down for the greatest mass appeal. Indeed reviews of comic-book films miss this distinction by sometimes seeming to pride themselves on complete ignorance of the comics, witness Donald Clarke’s pre-packagedly jaded review of Fantastic Four. His sneers at the comic-book sowed doubts that he’d ever read it or he would be aware of the unexpected emotional depth of the original 1961 title. He also elided its importance in creating the Marvel stable, its success allowing Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to go on to create characters from Spider-Man to The Hulk and Iron Man to the X-Men.

Critics seem to regard comic-book movies as being intrinsically juvenile and unworthy of the big screen, but tend to praise the work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, purely it seems because of their propensity for explicit sex and violence which, apparently, are the hallmarks of ‘mature’ movies. The twinning of Miller and Moore has become ever more farcical as Miller’s pet-project The Spirit exposed the sublimely stupid nature of his aesthetic, while Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman comics exposed the gulf between what a mature comic dripping wit and allusiveness and a film dripping CGI and test-screenings can do with the same concept. One can defend comic-books by citing Moore, who always wrote comics with big ideas (V for Vendetta, From Hell) before turning to novels (Voice of Fire, Jerusalem), but most comics merely aspire to be fun. And if a comic is well crafted, clever, exciting and affecting fun, why shouldn’t it be praised in the same way that Kathy Reichs’ Bones thrillers deserve great praise even if they are held to be populist trash next to a far less popular but oh-so-zeitgeisty Jonathan Franzen ‘masterpiece’?

Not every work of art is a penetrating insight into the human condition, not every work of art needs to be, most just aspire to be a good story well told. Is that not an admirable aspiration? Sneering at comics ironically recalls the scorn poured on people who valorised the works of mere entertainers like Hitchcock, Ford and Hawks seriously before the advent of auteur theory lionising them by Cahiers du Cinema. I unapologetically previewed a number of comic-book movies in my 2011: Hopes piece because comic-book movies are Hollywood’s flagship product right now, and a good comic-book movie is a good movie. Comic-book characters and scenarios obviously resonate or talented writers and directors wouldn’t continue to be drawn to them in comic and cinematic form. Indeed comic-book movies will only improve as more risks are taken. Mark Millar’s The Ultimates is the greatest blockbuster you will never see. It is intelligent, subversive, hilarious, outrageous and unfilmable because it would be too risky for the insane budget needed. Before condemning comic-book movies for dumbing down cinema read about Freddie Prinze Jr, trying to revive his flagging career by making a film about the super-team, but instead merely enraging Dr Bruce Banner: “HULK WANT FREDDIE PRINZE JUNIOR!!”

What we have right now are the comic-book movies that we deserve, but arguably en masse not the comic-book movies that we need…

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