Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Back in the summer of 1990, 18 years ago, I had nothing better to do, so I went to see Days of Thunder, a Don Simpson-Jerry Bruckheimer vanity production in service to the vanity of its producers, its director (Tony Scott) and its star, Tom Cruise. It was the reunion of Scott and Cruise with Simpson and Bruckheimer, all still basking in the afterglow of Top Gun, which was a huge box-office hit five years previous—an eternity when speaking of Hollywood short-term memory. The movie was loud, motored by cliché, and relentless in its campaign to make a case for the uber-masculinity of Cruise, whose character was named Cole Trickle (I’m not making this up; blame this seminal joke on Robert Towne, the movie’s screenwriter, who wrote the movie with Cruise), and at the time it seemed there wasn’t so much as an insignificant piece of glimmering chrome that director Scott (also responsible for the soft-focus goth fantasy The Hunger) wouldn’t fetishize and aestheticize to within an inch of its wide-screen life. I endured the movie for about a half an hour in before the whole fast-cutting-revving-engines-long-lens-shimmering-heat-of-the-track aesthetic drove me to the exit. (I think I must have also had an irrational fear that Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” was going to suddenly pop up on the soundtrack of this loud machine too, in the same way it propelled those screaming jet engines in Top Gun.)

Audiences didn’t turn out for Days of Thunder in the way they did for Top Gun, however. And a lot of water has passed over the dam in the ensuing 18 years, in terms of the evolution of action cinema and the desensitized visual paranoia that has come to characterize Tony Scott’s career as a director. Michael Bay took the Bruckheimer sensibility (now sans the deceased Simpson) to the logical apex of its manic, visually splintered origins, with epics like Con Air, Armageddon and the Bad Boys movies, none of which ever settled for four angles on a single piece of action when 10 could be crammed into the same short burst of time. Coming out of a Bay movie, especially Armageddon, one felt like one had been staring two inches away and directly into a strobe light for 150 minutes while sitting on a crowded airport tarmac. The success of those movies must have driven Scott nuts. In the years since Crimson Tide (1995), his movies have become increasingly jarring and incoherent, applying the multiple film stocks and shattered glass editing of Oliver Stone to an action film sensibility than hasn’t the patience for anything resembling storytelling coherence—Scott is too busy trying to prove his filmmaking chops to recognize that, in movies like Domino, Deja Vu and Man On Fire, they’ve virtually disappeared in visual chaos. (The prospect of his upcoming remake of The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 does not warm my cockles.)

What’s surprising is how kind time has been to Days of Thunder. In the shadow of a movie like Domino, hyperstylized to near oblivion, Thunder, with its relative long takes (some last over 15 seconds, and there are recognizable master shots in the movie’s visual plan) and its willingness to make room for some very good actors (Robert Duvall and Michael Rooker chief among them) to marinate and percolate among the fuel-injected silliness of the plot, comes off looking like a piece of classical Hollywood moviemaking by comparison. When I saw Days of Thunder again recently, I had a hard time remembering, beyond that looming specter of Kenny Loggins, why I originally felt the need to flee. Maybe it was because the movie was expected to be another formula (Formula) summer smash, and I didn’t relish taking part in making that Paramount dream come true. Maybe it was because I was on vacation in the mountains and decided I’d rather take a walk in the evening air. But as I watched it in my living room a few weeks ago, it went down easy enough, the glimmers of intelligence in the performances, and even in Scott’s eye for making those stock cars shimmer and take on a bit of their own life, were enough for an amusing evening at the races.

I wonder how Speed Racer will look to audiences 18 years from now. So far the reviews have been near universally dismissive, inspiring some of our best (as well as some of our not-so-best) film writers to come up with new and clever ways to evoke the flashy spatial disorientation that the movie serves up as its high-tech bread-and-butter, which is a far cry from the smash-and-grab antics of Scott and Bay. But you'd never know it from those reviews. A glance through the excerpts of pieces corralled at Rotten Tomatoes, where the movie is holding on to its none-too-impressive 35% overall rating, will inform you that the movie is “headache inducing,” “incoherent,” “ugly, “brutal,” “pathetic” and, in my favorite bit of overreaching cleverness, “(an) orgy of pixels writhing around like the special effects equivalent of a bukkake film.” Okay…

There are some enthusiastic notices to mention: Richard Corliss wrote a glowing piece about Speed Racer in Time magazine, and bloggers Rob Humanick and Matthew Kiernan exercise evenhanded intelligence in their reviews. Why, even Moriarty has some cogent things to say about the movie. But there’s no denying that the mixed-to-negative reviews are the mainstream when it comes to the Wachowski brothers’ movie.

David Edelstein acknowledges that “Speed Racer has moments of bliss,” but contends that they are cancelled out by the feeling that the film is “a nightmare in which you’re trapped in an arcade with screens on all sides and no eyelids.”

Stephanie Zacharek is far less kind in her elaborate metaphor conjuring: “Speed Racer is so arrogant about its so-called stylishness and energy that it feels like punishment, the equivalent of being trapped at a dinner party between two guys who feel compelled to inform you, in long-winded detail, how great they are.” Zacharek fails to meet the critical standard for tying her metaphor into a technological phenomenon, like Edelstein’s arcade reference, but she’s not finished: “This isn’t a picture filled with wonder and a sense of fun; it’s so jaded and crass that I almost wonder if it’s a highly scientific experiment to gauge how little audiences will settle for these days.” After finishing this review, any reader who may have appreciated Speed Racer can at least rest easy in the knowledge of his or her irredeemably low standards.

Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times wrote the review that perplexes me most. Chocano comes at the movie from the perspective I think many reviewers did, one not lacking in preconceived notions but instead waiting to confirm the received wisdom about the movie built on poor reactions to the trailer and other specious, Internet-generated buzz. And like several reviews I read, she can’t seem to decide what the movie could possibly do right, so she docks it for both the “vast swaths of dialogue” that “take the place of blocks of dramatic action in which things happen, once called scenes,” and for being “a movie about speed and forward momentum (which) provides very little of either, though it does explode into spurts of frenetic, confusing and hard-to-follow action.” Chocano is a critic who has consistently surprised me with her wit and intelligence, but her point of view here seems contradictory and confused.

Armond White’s lavish diatribe, however, is about par for the course for a critic fast approaching terminal self-parody: “Speed Racer kills cinema with its over-reliance on the latest special effects, flattening drama and comedy into stiff dialogue and blurry action sequences.” (Stay tuned for Armond’s rave for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull coming up right on schedule in two weeks.) Disappointingly, it takes the pugnacious New York Press critic five whole paragraphs before he makes a direct comparison of Speed Racer to Torque, a far superior absurdity directed by Joseph Kahn that is so good only Armond can appreciate it. He does, however, remind us in paragraph three that Speed Racer should not be confused with 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Conformist or McCabe and Mrs. Miller (“If today’s filmgoers even know those landmarks…”)

And God bless Walter Chaw for making sure we feel his pain: “After enduring the Cool World live-action version of Speed Racer, I confess I’ve sort of lost the will to live.” Those heartless Wachowskis! Chaw’s dizzying grumpfest of a review is summarized by this excerpt:

“I guess it looks cool, like Dr. Seuss sicking up all over a Twister board--cool in an eye-stabbing, brain-deadening way that lowers the collective IQ whilst inspiring some to believe that this razzle-dazzle will be cutting-edge for longer than the duration it takes for the film to tick through the projector. Good actors are asked to say things dubbed onto the round-mouth movements of Japanese avatars, and what's left is probably wondrous for the hardcore, diehard, pathetic-loser contingent. Free of that, the picture is incoherent at the very instant it's simplistic. The action is hard yet easy to follow, the simplistic drama is easy to understand and impossible to feel, and while the strain of not saying the obvious (that it's not about anything) must be showing, the point is that it's not even about imitation.”

Whew. Forget for a moment whether Speed Racer is any good or not. Is this good writing? I wun’t know, cuz my kollektive IQ has done been lowered so much, end I’m stll believin’ wut I saw wuz cuttingedge in that pitchershowe there…

Leave it to Jim Emerson, along with Edelstein and Zacharek one of my favorite film critics, to turn in probably the most evenhanded pan of the film I’ve read so far. Here’s a taste:

Speed Racer is not a feature film in any conventional sense-- although there is nothing so conventional in today's marketplace as a corporate product based on a campy vintage TV show that is developed for extremely brief exhibition in multiplexes on its way to more appropriate platforms such as DVD and video games, which provide the principal justification for its manufacture in the first place.

Neither is
Speed Racer a commercial avant-garde film (though fans of the Wachowski brothers may wish to make such claims), unless you still consider Laserium shows of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon to be cutting edge. (Lights! Shapes! Colors! Motion! Money!) And there's nothing terribly adventurous these days about Eisensteinian montage treated as if it were William S. Burroughs' "cut up" technique -- with digital clips randomly scrambled like pixilated confetti.

Nor is it some kind of subversive commodity, unless the outré strategy of pandering to a low-brow, retro-nostalgic crowd can be considered anything but business as usual in 2008. The faux naiveté on display here -- right down to the imitation-fruit-flavored FDA-food-dye coloring -- is both shamelessly quaint and shamelessly cynical.

What Speed Racer is, according to Jim, is “a manufactured widget, a packaged commodity that capitalizes on an anthropomorphized cartoon of Capitalist Evil in order to sell itself and its ancillary products.” And what’s more, “Whatever information that passes from your retinas to your brain during Speed Racer is conveyed through optical design and not so much through more traditional devices such as dialogue, narrative, performance or characterization. Like the animated TV series that inspired this movie, you could look at it with the sound off and it wouldn't matter.”

Yet despite the copious evidence of the arguments presented here, some more cogently than others, I’d like to testify that in the matter of Speed Racer I’m siding with the desensitized philistines, cynically manipulated and fleeced each and every one by this apparently soulless, and perhaps evil corporate ejaculation masquerading as entertainment. The movie I saw, in the company of my two daughters (ages 8 and 5), was a viscerally and aesthetically thrilling piece of action entertainment, a kaleidoscopic digital explosion of light and design in which primary tones of color, and of emotion, are rendered in complex patterns to simple and intense effect. The Wachowskis have not settled for rote duplication of the rudimentary pleasures of the Speed Racer TV series, about which there is some debate over their general merit, depending on how nostalgically inclined you are going in. (I wasn’t.) What’s amusing is, if they had gone the way of simply recreating the show, or camping up the proceedings with a wink and a nudge to the “low-brow, retro–nostalgic crowd” who know how stupid it all is, the Wachowskis would probably be getting even worse reviews than they are right now for creating this technically radical, emotionally direct, giddy, dizzying and heartfelt movie that eschews easy irony and uses all the high-tech paints and brushes at their disposal to create something unlike any other movie I’ve ever seen.

Three minutes from the beginning of Speed Racer

I think Jim mischaracterizes the aesthetic design and achievement of Speed Racer when he knocks it, by extension, for having avant-garde pretensions—the description is offered as one “fans of the Wachowski brothers” may want to take to heart, as though no one else would possibly entertain the notion, but also one that has no credibility. In fact, Glenn Kenny finds reason to mention the A-G word in his review, and even used Godard as a reference point for Speed Racer’s anime-inspired approach to action and visual language, even if he backs away far enough to conclude that the movie’s attempt to radicalize technique “yields heretofore un-dreamed of levels of narrative incoherence.” Avant-garde for the Pink Floyd-Laserium crowd or not, it’s this charge of incoherence, one that almost every negative review has claimed, that looks to be Speed Racer’s primary albatross, its aesthetic cross to bear. I know that Jim knows from incoherence (he’s seen as many Alan Parker movies as I have), but I wonder if these charges of incoherence hounding the film aren’t grounded as much in impatience for the relentless style of the movie, a virtual throwing up of one’s hands, as much as any evidence of an enfeebled awareness of conventional narrative. (And here I must say that, that Laserium crack notwithstanding, Jim’s review is a model of expressing his personal view of the movie while avoiding making those of us who disagree out to be misguided chumps for doing so.)

I ask about these charges simply because, far from finding Speed Racer incoherent, I instead discovered it to be a whooshing marvel which challenged me to see a simple story with fresh, often incredulous eyes, one that doesn’t exploit easy nostalgia but instead takes an elastic approach to the familiar tropes of the cartoon, creating an experience of film merged with digital effects that folds back on itself in exhilarating new ways. I’m not saying that the Wachowskis’ movie isn’t occasionally disorienting. It’s intended to be; what use for the wild, hyperkinetic, vertiginous designs of those race tracks, or the race cars that quite literally spin (and elevate and rotate) down them, if not to take away the stomachs of sensitive moviegoers? But the filmmakers never leave us adrift; the pace of the movie ensures that some new delight will come along quickly enough to ground or otherwise tickle even the most confused viewer.

In this same light, I have to take issue with Jim’s assertion that the movie is assembled with a Burroughsian attitude toward narrative structure, “with digital clips scrambled like pixilated confetti.” This comment implies that the movie has been slapped together with no attention to details like pace, connective tissue or graphic continuity, when in fact the Wachowskis, particularly in the movie’s lightning-fast first 20 minutes, use a instinctual approach to refashioning the language of visual storytelling to deftly scramble the movie’s different levels of back story with a present-day race that shows us everything we need to know about Speed’s relationship to the brother he lost, and the seriousness with which he approaches racing. The movie weaves between the race and the two flashback threads—an attention-deficit Speed in third-grade math class losing himself in a fantasia of forward motion (animated both as a flip-book drawing and a child’s crayon rendering of stock-car cinema with a flesh-and-blood Speed seated behind the 2-D wheel), and the story of how Speed’s older brother Rex lost his life in a racing accident—with an ease that belies the actual complexity of how the story is being told and the way the filmmakers make it seem like an organic exercise. If there is anything organic in Speed Racer it’s this sequence, from which the movie’s entire visual plan springs whole—we glide and hurtle from narrative strand to narrative strand along the movie’s liquid lines, which at times seem to connect the pieces of the puzzle by melting at the edges like a multicolored Popsicle. Other than some funny shock cuts from Speed at his desk to a conference between a teacher and Speed’s mom that, yes, did put me in mind of Godard, there is hardly anything about the first 20 minutes that couldn’t be described as fluid. And the rest of the movie, though it barely stops for breath, is exhilarating, not exhausting, and filled with the kind of hilarious invention that moviegoers hope for but with which they are rarely rewarded-- a structurally simple sequence of two drivers communicating by two-way radio, realized not with cutaways, but by a whooshing series of alternating close-ups that build on the escalating tension of the race, had me gasping with delight.

Jim knocks Speed Racer for conveying narrative information through “optical design, and not so much through more traditional devices such as dialogue, narrative, performance or characterization.” Though I think this is an oversimplification designed to make a point, I don’t necessarily disagree with it. Speed Racer does convey a lot of information about character and narrative through its sleek futuristic design and restructuring of the way scenes click and snap together. But it’s disingenuous to imply that the performances and the dialogue are perfunctory or otherwise bereft of thought, in service to ciphers that might as well be animated themselves. Emile Hirsch has a slightly recessive quality as an actor, and he doesn’t pop off the screen like most of the rest of his cast mates do. But he has just the right touch of a brooding, interior quality that suggests the pain as well as the passion that compels Speed toward racing greatness. This is not, by the way, the same as saying that his performance has an interior landscape of exceptional interest; but the glint in his eyes provides enough of a hint, and he rolls with the movie’s general tone of avoiding irony, providing a solid center around which the rest of the movie can gyrate.

John Goodman embodies Pops Racer with physical acuity and, yes, grace, and an integrity that most actors couldn’t resist italicizing with a smirk. Roger Allam conjures delicious venality to the task of accessing the dark heart of corporate villain Arnold Royalton, who attempts to seduce Speed into abandoning his homespun loyalty to Pops Racer Racing. Twisting his chops like a purple-clad Tim Curry, Allam doesn’t reinvent scenery chewing, he just reminds you of its pleasures. Even young Paulie Litt surprises as Speed’s pudgy, pugnacious little brother Spritle, in the constant company of his manic chimp buddy Chim-Chim. Together, these two comprise an interspecies comedy team that punctuates the movie with genuine laughs and demonstrates that not all of Speed Racer’s charms are of the digital variety. So too does Christina Ricci as Speed’s chaste, incredibly cute girlfriend Trixie, who knows her way around a purple-and-pink helicopter and is no slouch behind the wheel either. Ricci now seems born, with those saucer-sized eyes, angular Louise Brooks haircut and feline eye liner, to be inserted into a live-action anime, and she has the most striking graphic presence of anyone in the cast. In a perfect world, the Wachowskis would build the sequel around her. Ricci’s gorgeous peepers outdo even those of Susan Sarandon as Speed’s ever-patient Mom who has less to do than anyone else, but still manages to create an appropriately warm place for the movie to occasionally retreat. (And she grills an awesome pancake).

Finally, Matthew Fox, as the mysterious Racer X, Speed’s sometime adversary, sometime partner in pedal-to-the-metal fun and games, displays a sly sense of humor about essentially being cast as a walking phallus. He brings just the right glancing touch to the homoerotic undercurrent in his scenes, which Zacharek found so annoying, and he handles the mystery of Racer X with aplomb too. Like Hirsch and Speed, he’s no cipher; he’s just based on one.

It’s hard for me to imagine getting up enough steam to be too bothered by the apparent contradiction of making an anti-corporate movie that’s funded by a major conglomerate like Time Warner. It’s like saying there’s hypocrisy inherent in any work of art that doesn’t ascribe credence or endorsement to the views of the big boys who laid out the money to make it. Of course the Wachowskis wouldn’t be able to create this universe without the infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars obtained from snakes only slightly less oily (and far more conniving) than Arnold Royalton. But I’m not sure that’s in and of itself incontrovertible evidence that they’re hypocrites for building their movie around a critique of capitalist extremity, especially if there’s evidence, however debatable, that they’re in the pursuit or art and not just blind commerce. (Let me count the ways in which the Wachowskis, through the realization of the vision behind this movie, have sabotaged their commercial prospects with a mass audience that is primed to expect exactly the kind of toothless corporate product exemplified by movies like the Spider-Man and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises.) Nor do I imagine that Speed Racer is the first movie, big budget or not, to bite the hand that feeds it. The Player comes to mind, and though it got by on the imprimatur of Robert Altman, the ultimate outsider, the movie itself was funded in part by Aaron Spelling and distributed by Fine Line Features, a tributary of Time Warner, which also released Speed Racer. One look at the promiscuous degree of cameo appearances in Altman’s film reveals its satire as the unmistakable product of an inside job. And there’s the movie Kenny brings up-- Bertolucci’s not-so-friendly-to-capitalism 1900, distributed on these shores by Gulf & Western, which owned Paramount at the time.

Another of the movie’s apparent crimes is its sincerity. Swirling around among the breathless inventiveness of the races, the narrative fluidity and ingenuity, the comic hi-jinks of Spritle and Chim-Chim, and the cacophonous beauty of the movie’s design, is the glue that holds the whole enterprise together-- the honest emotional trajectory of the story of a boy obsessed with racing (who stands in ably for an artist who choreographs the movement of his car like a internally combustive dance) and grounded by familial love. A friend of mine and I spent the day Monday exchanging breathless e-mails about how much we loved Speed Racer and making our plans to see it again as soon as possible (preferably in IMAX, he said, fully aware of the instant spike in his Geek-O-Meter rating). I love what he said about the movie:

“The movie struck me as something rather akin to De Palma: stylistics (camera movement, color, design, music) all choreographed in an expressionistic synthesis which, at its best, dovetails with the emotions in the story -- however simplistic or generic -- and fuses into something I find incredibly moving, and uniquely cinematic.”

There’s an attitude here in my friend’s comments that cuts through the condescending attitude of many of the reviews that characterize the movie’s technology as being in service to narrative banality. But it’s that punching through to the genuine emotion despite the story’s apparent lack of complexity that is significant here. And I think he’s right to invoke De Palma as well, a groundbreaking storyteller who fuses technique and social terror to create often grandiose, bitterly funny and enthralling visions typically pockmarked with the kind of narrative flaws that are diminished, and sometimes redeemed, by the sheer audacity of his style. What’s authentically awesome about Speed Racer is the way it nimbly accesses the emotions buried within a blockbuster package and uses the digital medium not only to excite the senses but to come to an understanding, in the rush of excitement in our brain waves and in our follicles as the goose bumps rise, of why we should be reacting at all. This is, to me the mark of a work of pop art. The CGI technology which by now has become so mundane and deadly in other filmmaking contexts is invigorated, made as masterful as Speed Racer himself hurling down the track, spinning and doing gravity-defying loops. Speed’s mom waxes rhapsodic about her son’s ability as a driver and tells him, “It’s inspiring and beautiful, everything art should be.” Dare I say the same about Speed Racer? I dare. It's the movie of the year for me so far.


Burbanked said...

At the risk of sounding like an overly simplistic internet fanboy, Dennis, allow me to simply begin with:

Holy crap!

This is one seriously thrilling post, a wonderful review that zooms and spins and turns so nicely back around on itself that I might even compare it to a spectacular, dizzying race.

I was unreasonably excited by the coming of SR, having invested much more of my youthful imagination and action-scenario roleplaying on the exploits of the Mach 5 than those of, say, Optimus Prime. But the flurry of negative reviews from so many writers whose taste and skills I admire have soured me on seeing the movie. Even so, I viewed that opening clip, attached to someone's panning review as an example of the movie's excesses and still thought, "Well, I don't know..."

What I find so fascinating about the negative reviews is the sense of outrage and acrimony at this film's supposed flaws. It's as if the reviewers are trying to scratch an aesthetic itch that they can't quite reach. To me it often sounds as though there IS quality in the movie, and there IS an intangible piece of art - it's just so buried under the mania of hyper-stylized CG that maybe we just have to work a little harder to find it.

And I don't know if this was a factor for you because you don't mention whether or not your girls liked SR, but I tend to be much more involved - and a lot more forgiving - with otherwise "bad" movies when I'm sitting there with my kids while THEY enjoy them. What a concept: the fact that a movie aimed at kids might actually appeal to kids, and break through our ancient, jaded, fun-killing adult sensibilities.

Thanks for a wonderful piece.

Anonymous said...

i'll have to disagree when you that post the wonderfully fluid first few minutes the movie moves at a breakneck pace.. hell, i would have loved it if it had.. instead of going overboard which they seem to be going for all of it suddenly comes down to a lot of dialogue and posturing and no delirium.. i wish it went the way you described it.. but the fact is, it just didnt

bill said...

Whew. Well, Dennis, you certainly make your case (and I particularly appreciate you taking shots at those critics who make a point of insulting those who disagree with them), but "Speed Racer" looks exactly like the kind of movie I do not want to spend my time watching. I'd be lying if I didn't say that the few positive reviews -- yours especially -- haven't at least made me curious, but Edelstein's arcade-with-no-eyelids line is far more in keeping with the vibe I've been getting.

The catch-22 I find myself in is that I have a feeling curiosity will eventually get the better of me, but not before it's left the theaters (which apparently could be just about any day now); but if I don't see it in the theater, what's the point?

In short, I guess I may be missing out, but I'm okay with that.

Anonymous said...


I know you and I have totally disagreed with our opinions in the past, i.e. ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, and I sometimes like to believe that in my own narrow minded way I kinda have a feeling on the movies you would take a liking too, but my GOD! I am blown away by your affection for SPEED RACER.

Now, I have seen exactly 45 minutes of this film because of circumstances beyond my control and I have to say that in my small way I was liking it a lot. Yet I had already heard from you and your very short positive opinion but I was in no way prepared for this very intriguing, highly defensive and very understanding review.

During my 45 minutes of SPEED RACER intake, I did from time to time tell myself that, "Wow...Dennis really dug this flick" and I did recall that in your aapreciative way you also "enjoyed" Michael Bay's Transformers, so I could see the correlation in your opinions.

I need to go back and finish the rest of this film.

I wonder if Jim has recovered from that pounding he received in the corner of the ring from Sugar Ray Cozzalio?

Dennis Cozzalio said...

DID: Of all the people who need poundings in this world, Jim is definitely not one of them, and I certainly didn't intend my jousting with his review to come off like my attempt at one. If anything, Jim's review was the one I responded to most because it was intelligent and thoughtful, and therefore more fun to engage. Not that Zacharek's and Edelstein's weren't, but I just felt there was more to chew on with Jim's piece, and his was the only one of those reviews I quoted that seriously challenged me about my own position on the film. A writer doesn't have to agree with me on any given movie in order for his writing and thinking to be valuable to me, and Jim's views on Speed Racer certainly are.

That said, it's a great movie and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Bill: I certainly can understand your hesitance. By the time I walked into the theater Friday night I was pretty sure I'd at the very least dislike it, given the number of good writers would seemed to find it unendurable. But I would say if you have any inclination to see it, you really should see it in a theater. And I don't relish taking potshots at particular reviewers, but I find it really offensive when the insults start flying and generalizations are bandied about regarding the intelligence or standards of anyone who doesn't see it their way.

Burbanked: Thanks! Wow! Your comment about the outrage over the film's perceived flaws is what I was getting at about across-the-board this insistence on the movie's incoherence.

And by the way, my girls loved it. My five-year-old got a little antsy near the end, but we all three were so excited when we left that I seriously considered talking them back to see it the next day. Well, life got in the way of that plan-- but there's always this coming weekend! And I concur with you about being a little softer on some movies that they're so obviously enjoying-- Alvin and the Chipmunks comes to mind. But Speed Racer is no Alvin-- it's, as you say, a genuinely good movie for children that appeals to adults in precisely the same way as it does for kids. It doesn't turn itself into a snarkfest full of references pitched at the oldsters to keep them from nodding off.

bill said...

Dennis - I know you don't relish going after these reviewers, but really...they're assholes. I'm not really a fan of Paul Haggis's "Crash", but my wife liked it, and it always offends me when I read someone insulting that film's fans. That kind of "criticism" says a hell of a lot more about the critic than it does about the film.

(And I know that you're also not, let's say, fond of "Crash", but I never saw you take that route when writing about it.)

As for "Speed Racer", my inclination to see it is miniscule. I'm sorry, but I just don't see it happening. Part of me wishes I wasn't such a grouch about it, and could just get my ass to the theater and decide for myself, but, at the moment, that's where I am. Anyway, I still have to check out "Iron Man", fer Chrissakes, which I'm very much looking forward to.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Let me know what you think about Iron Man. I thought it was terrific.

And believe me, I know the feeling of not being able to get myself interested in seeing a movie or reading a book, because of or despite reviews. No point in forcing yourself-- seems you're even less likely to have fun that way!

bill said...

"Let me know what you think about Iron Man. I thought it was terrific."

I will definitely do that. I've heard nothing but good things from people whose taste I trust about this sort of thing, so I'm not too worried. I'll be seeing it this weekend.

Incidentally, last weekend I saw "Redbelt". If you'd like my thoughts on it, you could read either Roger Ebert or Glenn Kenny's review of it, because I agree with them. I'm a HUGE fan of David Mamet, and I did enjoy "Redbelt", but boy, it's sort of a mess. My wife and I were trying to hash out the plot afterwards, and I really don't think it makes any sense. And the ending...I just don't know. It felt like there were a coupleo of scenes missing.

Still, there's some really good stuff in there. I was thrilled to see Joe Mantegna back in Mamet's troupe (though I would have liked more of him; there's really only one scene where he shows that he's the best there is at delivering Mamet's dialogue), and Tim Allen is actually NOT ridiculous in it. He was actually pretty good. Though, when it comes to comedians popping up unexpectedly in dramatic roles in David Mamet movies, he still doesn't come close to topping Steve Martin in "The Spanish Prisoner".

Anonymous said...


You said, "I've heard nothing but good things from people whose taste I trust about this sort of thing, so I'm not too worried."

Are you saying you don't trust Dennis and his taste in films? I'd have to say that of all people Dennis was the last person in the world I would've thought would take a liking to "Roscoe Jenkins" and yet, I was there when he emerged with that surprised look of satisfaction on his face. He took a chance and the shot in the dark payed off, literally.

As for my description of Dennis' "pounding" of Jim and his review, I was merely using your repeated use of Jim's various quotes as counter points for your review. Now I did feel you did return to Jim's stuff quite a few times, I never would suggest that you were mocking or belittling Jim's unfavorable view point.

Still it's very interesting to read the point/counter point. Very SPEED RACER like indeed.

Always good Dennis. Why you are not making a living at this is beyond me.

bill said...

Drive-in Dude -

"Are you saying you don't trust Dennis and his taste in films?"

I don't know if you were joking, but just in case, no, that's not what I was saying. Dennis would be one of those people I referred to whose taste I trust. I can see how it might have read differently, however.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Bill-- I'll check out Ebert and Kenny on Redbelt. I admit it's not been a priority for me, but it looks like Flight of the Red Balloon and My Blueberry Nights have already disappeared from Los Angeles, so it's moved up a couple of notches.

I have to say, I'm not much of a fan of Mamet as a writer-director. Of the five films of his I've seen-- House of Games, Things Change, Homicide, The Spanish Prisoner and Heist and his TV series The Unit-- I enjoyed The Spanish Prisoner to a degree and Things Change, perhaps his most atypical movie, the most.

I found Heist maddening, and though I know a lot of smart people who love it, I revisited House of Games recently and found it just as stilted and obvious as I ever did. The cliche of things not being what they seem, in House of Games et al, is an understatement, and I find that stylized dialogue, read with deadening accuracy by Lindsay Crouse and Mantegna, both of whom I love in other people's movies, completely forbidding-- it cancels out any enjoyment I might otherwise take in the film.

I will say that Redbelt is automatically more enticing to me because of the presence of Chiwetel Ejiofor-- but then I see Ricky Jay and Rebecca Pidgeon and I get the creeps all over again. (I laughed when I read somewhere recently that one of the cardinal rules of Mamet's cinema is that Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's wife, should never be trusted!) But I will see it on your recommend and seek out those reviews. At the very least, it doesn't star Patrick Dempsey or Ashton Kutcher, so I oughta be fairly safe!

WelcometoLA said...

Dennis, thanks for this enthusiastic review. I'm not sure I would go so far as to label "Speed Racer" the movie experience of the year so far (for me, that would be "U2:3D," "My Blueberry Nights" or the underrated "Shine A Light"), but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I don't think Godard would object to this movie, and having watched both "Pierrot Le Fou" and "Speed Racer" back-to-back this weekend, I found they had a lot in common, mainly a sort of joyful thrill in playing with the form. I felt exhilirated by the enjoyment of the filmmakers, and it's the same way I felt at that last notorious flop, "Grindhouse." Really, Hollywood is never going to get anywhere if they keep making movies just for you and me.

By the way, have Roger Allam and Christopher Hitchens ever been seen in the same room together?

I also totally missed the phallus symbol of Racer X. The only thing I really objected to in Speed Racer was letting John Goodman wear polo shirts without the benefit of a form-fitting manzierre.

And I still love "Domino."

Cheers, Larry

Anonymous said...

Hi Dennis: I had planned to do a follow-up post citing Glenn Kenney's review, which I think is brilliant. And now there's yours, too. I think we're all describing the same movie, but we have different levels of appreciation for what it does. Me, I think it's a neat light show, but nothing new in principle (at least since D.W. Griffith). I'll get into that more, later. For now, just let me say I'll have to resort to cliche and say I appreciate your appreciation a lot more than I (or the audience I saw the movie with) enjoyed sitting through the movie!

Greg said...

I'm afraid I have nothing to say but since you went to such trouble - Thanks for the review.

Anonymous said...


Yes I was needling you just a bit. Dennis knows I think very highly of his opinion and the opinion of those he surrounds himself with. I just got a real kick out of your responses.

Thom McGregor said...

What a brilliantly written review, hubby. One of your all-time best. Exciting, consistently nteresting, multilayered, complicated but always clear headed, funny, witty and just a little pugnacious. You need-- NEED-- to be doing this for a living. And yet... I still can't get myself to go see this movie. But go ahead and take the girls again.

bill said...

Dennis - Just remember, when you see "Redbelt", that I don't recommend it unreservedly. It's a mess, but an enjoyable one. As for Ricky Jay, and Rebecca Pidgeon (both of whom I love): Jay has a medium-sized supporting role, and Pidgeon is barely in it.

As for Mamet overall, all I can say is his stuff really clicks with me, and always has. I will admit that his career as a director has been a bit creaky (there have been alarmingly bad supporting performances in almost every movie), but to one degree or another I've enjoyed everything he's done. He's just one of those artists whose work, and style, I respond to almost instantly, on a gut level.

For the record, I think that "Homicide" is his masterpiece. What a gripping, unusual, troubling film. And I think "House of Games" holds up brilliantly, although I can't fault anybody for being put off by Crouse in that film; honestly, I am, too. But everything ELSE about that film is top-drawer.

And just out of curiosity, what do you find so maddening about "Heist"?

Anonymous said...

I agree with your wife, Dennis: You should be earning buckets of money writing stuff like this. Now I really need to go see this movie with Rasmus!

Ali Arikan said...

What an excellent piece, Dennis! Bravo!

Sean said...

For the record, Simon West (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, The General's Daughter, When a Stranger Calls) directed Con Air, not Michael Bay.

Greg said...

Okay, I have more time now and much to say. I do not intentionally play devil's advocate here but in making certain statements in may come off that way and as such, I apologize in advance. I also apologize in advance if I sound somewhat negative because I value you as a writer, blogger and friend (at least of the internet variety since I know we have never met).

All that in mind, one of the first things that struck me was that you seemed to be committing the same crimes that you charge the negative reviewers of this film. In dismantling their reviews you are in effect doing the same to them as you felt they are doing to anyone who likes the film. To clarify, they are calling you and anyone who likes Speed Racer an idiot, and you in turn are calling them dismissive snobs. And there is perhaps a personal bias at work as well. For instance, when you finally arrive at Jim Emerson's review you call it the most "evenhanded" of the pans but I suspect this was written out of kindness of friendship more than anything else (and there's nothing wrong with that) because, frankly, I didn't find Jim's pan to be very much different from the others you call out.

While you feel they are ignoring the story in their criticisms of what they hated about the movie, it feels to me that you are ignoring their criticisms for why they hate it. Isn't it possible that someone can find jarring, technicolor spasms to be bad moviemaking form? Must they "overlook" this in favor of some unclear aesthetic? Movies tell stories visually in the best of all possible worlds (even when they contain the greatest of dialogue) so if a film has nauseating, confusing imagery, isn't that a valid reason to pan the film?

You seem bothered that so many critics have criticized a movie for it's visual presentation but to me that is many times exactly where a movie rises or falls.

I have not seen Speed Racer so I am not presenting these arguments on the basis of liking or disliking the film but simply on the basis of what you wrote. Even if I hate the film or love it, it wouldn't change the questions I have for your review which I have raised here.

Again, I hope you won't take offense at any of this (I'm certainly not trying to cause any) but I am suspect of a review that spends so much time dismantling other critics' reviews. Not suspect as in "I think you have an evil agenda" but suspect in that I think perhaps(?) you are being a bit defensive about your own liking of the movie to the point that maybe you're trying to justify to yourself.

Just some thoughts. And yes, I think it's an excellently written review and unfortunately I have absolutely no desire whatsoever to see this movie. Just none. Zero. But I will see it eventually I'm sure and I will watch it with an eye towards your positive comments. Thanks for listening (or reading).

bill said...

I realize none of that was directed at me, Jonathan, but until Dennis gets here I'd just like to point out that sometimes defensiveness is completely justified. If a critic chooses to make insults towards anyone who disagrees with him or her a major part of his review of a given film, that almost forces those disagree with that critic, and who took the time to read the review, to go on the defensive. Calling that critic out for their offensive, condescending review is natural ("Stand up for yourself, Poindexter!"). How is doing so the same thing as writing the original insulting review?

If you go to a movie that has been ripped apart by the critics who point out that anyone who likes the movie is an idiot, and you sit there and realize that you actually LIKE the movie, you're going to realize that those critics have just insulted you (and don't say they didn't, because they did). Isn't it then a rational approach to your own review to then examine all the negative reactions of these other critics? "Speed Racer" is getting slammed. To not talk about that at length would have been a strange move on Dennis' part.

But really, the main point is that when someone's being a dick, telling them they're being a dick isn't the same thing as being a dick yourself.

PS - I know you weren't calling Dennis a dick. But you get my point.

PPS - I still don't want to see "Speed Racer".

Anonymous said...

Speed Racer (Wachowskis, 2008):

[size=1]"Stop steering. Start driving."[/size]

I went to an afternoon matinée showing to fit around my schedule, and while there were only a few people there, we were all laughing along and people were cheering and whooping. And I left the cinema with a grin the size of a crescent moon plastered on my face. The Brothers seem to have delivered a real crowd-pleasing extravaganza of a film.

The racing scenes were bleeding spectacular. I mean "spectacular" in a way that has never even been imagined. Honestly, it deserves an Oscar nod just for art design. What's so ingenious about the opening sequence is that it not only sets up all the characters with entertaining and emotional efficiency, but it also establishes how the cars work in this fantasy world. So despite the races being faster than anything you're ever likely to see, the main action beats are always delivered with a clarity and a style that will keep you thrilled beyond belief. Each race is perfectly crafted with the stakes and the challenges rising further and further with each successive scene...until we reach a final showdown that leaves you utterly breathless. Literally. And the "visual vocabulary" of the film is truly innovative. It's like the camera is no object. As an audience member, you've never felt freer. Unlike the stylistic approach of the recent Star Wars prequels, which generally used locked off cameras and relatively tame tracking shots, Speed Racer ducks into, under and around the action in a way that opens up the medium like no other film before it. Compared to other film in its greenscreen sub-genre, this leaves movies like Sin City and 300 looking rather timid by comparison.

But at the heart of it, this is really a film about fathers and their sons. A coming of age story about hope, expectation, and the pain of loss. I found myself with a lump in my throat while watching the movie. Wait, let me rephrase. I found myself with a lump in my throat within ten minutes of the film starting. Emile Hirsch, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox and Scott Porter as the young Rex Racer all provide intimate and genuinely moving performances. Make no mistake about it, this film is the definition of joviality on celluloid. But the story is basically driven by the shadow of a lost family member from the very first scene in the film, and that's what really makes the film worth watching. As well as being immersed in a fantasy world of drop dead gorgeous visuals, of course.

In the same way that Sin City was an exaggerated, impressionistic noir, and just as 300 was an exaggerated, impressionistic war movie, Speed Racer plays as an exaggerated, impressionistic 1960s kid's show. Which is exactly what it is. It's campy. It's fun, And it's full of humour and heart. Of course, brooding characters and over-the-top gore is easier to sell than camp, colourful fun, but allowing oneself to become absorbed in the film's style makes for a rewarding experience. I've heard complaints about the film's exposition, but the only scene where I could perhaps understand that criticism was about half way through when Taejo's family troubles were being told. But even that zipped by very quickly and the audience still understands exactly what was at stake in the upcoming race. So if it is a flaw, it's a minor one at best.

The characters are warm and lovable, the villains are wonderfully hissable, the actors' performances are all suitably camp, and the morality tale at the center of it - the battle of family versus corporatism - gives the story a real spirit. And makes the races all that more enthralling to watch. It's infectiously charming, and even at 129 minutes the film glides like a T-180 on ice. I was convinced I was only in there for about thirty minutes, and when it finished I was left gagging for more.

So what's the verdict? Well, it's a tricky decision between 4 and 5 stars. While the story wasn't exactly the peak of literary greatness, it was very well told. Despite its two hour plus running time, the narrative was sharp, the emotionality was touching, and the plot turns were genuinely exciting. If the film was not such a special effects extravaganza, it would probably have been given a 4 star rating. But the film does have incredible special effects. And it does offer an absolutely sublime spectacle. Not only that, but the Wachowskis seem to have yet again set another industry standard - one that will likely be copied and mimicked for years to come. Until the Brothers reinvent the wheel for a fourth time, that is. And as such, the rating for this film is for something that could easily end up becoming highly influential classic.

Bring on Speed Racer 2!

The Siren said...

DAMN, Cozzalio.

THIS is blogging. This is what it's all about. Adding a voice to the MSM, and doing it with brilliance, erudition and amazing style.

Speed Racer so does not sound like my sort of thing, and yet this is the first piece on it that I read to the end. And you've even made me sort of tempted to see it. This, despite my hating the original cartoon.

I repeat, THIS, sir, is blogging.

And, just because I know I am going to quote it at some point, my favorite line:

"...with its relative long takes (some last over 15 seconds, and there are recognizable master shots in the movie’s visual plan)..."

I read this yesterday and I'm still laughing over that one.

Greg said...

but until Dennis gets here ... yeah, like that's gonna happen. ;) <-- hey look I made one of those winking thingys.

Anyway, Bill said, "when someone's being a dick, telling them they're being a dick isn't the same thing as being a dick yourself."

I agree, dickhead ;) (<-- hey look I did it again) but what I'm saying is that Dennis did not merely point it out but, to my reading, then called them dicks back. To my reading. Dennis implies that they miss the point, they don't see what he sees and thus, the general feeling is, they're idiots for it.

Oh it's not that bad. Dennis doesn't go that far, I'm just saying that I felt he was reciprocating unnecessarily.

Anyway, I'll wait for Dennis to reply before going further. And I feel I should say again that it's excellently written because I don't want Dennis to think I've turned against him or something.

Thanks for digging my hole deeper Bill!



... wait for it


;) <-- and there it is.

bill said...

| ------
| ------

That's one of those surprised-guys-with-a-cap-and-a-mustache-and-a-really-long-cane-who-is-also-extremely-bowlegged thingies.

And you said: "...but what I'm saying is that Dennis did not merely point it out but, to my reading, then called them dicks back."

Those are the same things, aren't they?

And anyway, they ARE dicks. They need to have it pointed out to them. I'm actually being sort of serious, here. Being insulting and generally rude to people who you'll never have to face, either over the phone or the internet, or through your weekly published film reviews, is becoming more and more common, and even accepted. It needs to be stamped out.

If this were a movie, and Dennis was being played by, say, Michael J. Fox, and the Rude Critic was being played by Ted McGinley, seeing Dennis push the Rude Critic into the lake (the film equivelant of calling him a dick), you'd stand up and cheer!

bill said...

Wow, my bow-legged guy looked a lot different before I hit "post". Oh well.

Headquarters 10 said...

My favorite image out of SPEED RACER comes during that opening 20 minutes when young Speed gets in a fight with a fellow school kid, gets knocked flat on his back, looks up and sees the smiling young Trixie beaming at him from upside down. As far as I'm concerned, this one shot encapsulates the movie: Some people just see and appreciate beauty from a different perspective, be it a girl like Trixie or an amazing race car. Or SPEED RACER.

I'd also like to stress how it's also a great movie for families. The Racers all love and support each other are the least dysfunctional movie family in ages, and yet they're not dull or boring because of it; you genuinely like these people. That's not an easy thing to do these days, but in the midst of all the FX, the Warkowskis (brothers, of course) don't lose sight of this. And once again, how great was Goodman?

Fantastic job, Dennis. I'm sending this to everyone I know who's refusing to see it!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Hey, Jonathan, all! Wow, when I went to bed last night it didn't look like this around here...!

I will return here later tonight and address some of the your comments when I can afford to take some time out-- today's one of those big juggling days (school volunteering, subbing, homework and work-work), so I can't offer much right now.

But thanks to everybody for chiming in. I really appreciate the discussion, and I hope it continues!

The Mysterious Ad[ri.an B)e;ta]m.a.x. said...

Oh, yeah, Con Air.

Simon West wants his props.
Where's Mike Gilbert to give them to him?!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thanks for reminding me, Sean and Editor A.

I actually said to myself while I was writing that, "Better not put down Con Air-- that wasn't Michael Bay." And then I did it anyway!

I meant to type The Rock... (and I'll never type those six words ever again!)

Anonymous said...

"Just a bully? What, you're not gonna let me carry your books? Aren't you a caution."

With all this talk of who's calling who a dick - and Mamet before that - this line seems appropriate.

bill said...


"You're a bad pony, and I'm not gonna bet on you."

Anonymous said...

Dennis. This is one of the best pieces of criticism I've read in the past five years. Thank you.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Jim: Thanks for stopping by, and thanks too for understanding that it was never my intention to showcase your review as a personal attack, or to deride you for having an opinion opposite mine. As I said somewhere up above here, I chose to engage with your review because I thought it was the best written and best considered one I read that didn’t fall in line with my own enthusiasm, and because although you made it clear what you didn’t think worked I never got the sense that you were name-calling at anyone who disagreed with your point of view. At this point, I’d like to pull out a line Matt sometimes uses in situations like these, and it’s a highly appropriate one for this picture: in regard to my angle or yours, any reader must remember that, in EPA estimates as well as film criticism, your mileage may vary. And it usually does. That’s what makes this whole business of thinking critically about films fun, especially when there is a level of respect for differing perspectives.

Larry: First of all, nice to have you back!

“I don't think Godard would object to this movie, and having watched both Pierrot le Fou and Speed Racer back-to-back this weekend, I found they had a lot in common, mainly a sort of joyful thrill in playing with the form. I felt exhilarated by the enjoyment of the filmmakers, and it's the same way I felt at that last notorious flop, Grindhouse. Really, Hollywood is never going to get anywhere if they keep making movies just for you and me.

I’m so glad you brought up Pierrot le Fou, because that comparison had occurred to me a couple of times while watching Speed Racer, and several more times since. Godard is poking at the form and substance of the romantic crime thriller in much the same way that the Wachowskis reshape action cinema as a futuristic cartoon. It’s easy to see the influence of A Hard Day’s Night in Godard’s movie too, which just goes to show that tracing the lineage of movies is an inextricable part of their joy. If you ever get a chance to see Pierrot le Fou on the big screen (I did last year), jump on it. (Contempt is coming back to theaters this summer too, just as fair warning.) And you’re right—Hollywood never will get anywhere with that strategy of pandering to folks like us, but it’ll be a whole lot more fun watching them circle the drain if they keep it up!

Thom: You’re one of the smartest people I know, so it means a lot to read your comment. Thanks. Now, are you sure you don’t want to catch that Saturday matinee with me and the girls this weekend? Or would you rather wait and see it in IMAX with me and Don Monday night? 

Peet: I’m dying to know what you think of this movie. And Rasmus too. Please check back in and let me know! And I’ve been peppering NBC with calls to let me take over for Gene Shalit, but so far no response…

Ali: Thanks for the props, here and at the House Next Door. I really appreciate it! Have you had a chance to see the movie yet?

Manfred: “This leaves movies like Sin City and 300 looking rather timid by comparison.” Amen, brother. Thanks for sharing your reaction.

B. Woods: Wow! I don’t know what to say other than you must be reading a lot of capsule reviews in People magazine! But seriously, thank you. Twenty-five years ago I used to think it was easier and more fun writing negative reviews. But now I think exactly the opposite. I just hope it shows.

HQ10: “My favorite image out of Speed Racer comes during that opening 20 minutes when young Speed gets in a fight with a fellow school kid, gets knocked flat on his back, looks up and sees the smiling young Trixie beaming at him from upside down. As far as I'm concerned, this one shot encapsulates the movie: Some people just see and appreciate beauty from a different perspective…”

Yours may be one of my favorite insights about the movie. I can’t wait to see it again, and when I do I’ll be looking forward to this moment. Thanks for writing your own review and articulating your feelings so well.

Campaspe: I kid you not, I was bowled over by how relatively sedate and non-flashy (remember, I said “relatively”) Days of Thunder seemed compared to the spastically edited displays of most action movies today. If you’d told me in 1990 it would eventually come to this, I think I would have headed back to staring at The Jack Benny Show on my radio.

I don’t think I have to reiterate how much I respect your abilities as a writer and a thinker about movies. (But I just did… so there!) So reading your comment this morning was a genuine treat for me. I too have never been in thrall to the original cartoon, although I do like the theme song, particularly the looser, jazzier version played over the end credits. And given my aversion to most movies edited and paced with breakneck velocity, I really don’t think you could say that I was a likely candidate to appreciate what the Wachowskis did with their movie. I did get the feeling I might like the movie from seeing the trailer, but it was a feeling that was always accompanied by a nagging suspicion that it could also be a disaster of epic proportions. So I think (I hope) my (overlong) piece reflected in some way the kind of giddiness that comes from total surprise. I turned to my eight-year-old midway through and said to her, “I love this movie!” She just grinned a big, ragged, loose-toothed grin back at me and said, “Me too!”

You always make my day when you stop by, Siren. Thank for doing it again!

Bill: Homicide is one of those movies, like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, that I’ve pledged to revisit, because I have to admit my memory of it is so fuzzy that I can no longer trust my recollection of dissatisfaction, my reasons for being dissatisfied or, frankly, much about the movie at all. If it’s on DVD, I will rent it and see it again for myself. I have never seen State and Main, which seems like it might be a likely candidate for a thumbs-up. As for Heist, I tired very quickly of the undiluted hyper-stylized macho braggadocio that seemed to make up much of the dialogue—did everyone have to be that hard-boiled? Also, I felt that it was rather indifferently directed and shapeless for a movie of its kind, and I remember thinking to myself, how much more of a twist is it when you know every double-cross has a triple and quadruple coming right behind and right on schedule? Do you like this one a lot? And what about Spartan, another one I missed? Or The Winslow Boy? Have you seen The Unit? Of course, I loved James Foley’s film of Glengarry Glen Ross, and being that I don’t think much of him as a director, I’m glad Mamet didn’t direct it himself.

Jonathan: First of all, I admit that Jim E. is a good friend and I think I understand where he’s coming from, so if that helps me read his review as non-hostile, then I’m grateful for that, being that this is being framed as a discussion about whether or not my personal reaction to the movie and the negative reaction swirling around it was a bit too personal.

You said of my engaging with other reviewers: “In dismantling their reviews you are in effect doing the same to them as you felt they are doing to anyone who likes the film. To clarify, they are calling you and anyone who likes Speed Racer an idiot, and you in turn are calling them dismissive snobs.”

I guess I should point out that none of the film critics I quoted, either briefly or at length, are writers with whom I am only slightly familiar. Each one is one I’ve read for many years—in one case over 20—so I have a pretty good idea where they’re coming from too. And they are, with maybe a couple of exceptions by a matter of degree, writers whose integrity I respect. You’ll note that I never wrote disparagingly about what David Edelstein or even Carina Chocano had to say about the movie. In Edelstein’s case, I merely quoted a line which summed up his point of view with no further comment. As far as Chocano, I pointed out that her review made me suspect her reaction might have been influenced by preconceptions free-floating through the industry in the weeks before the film opened, and I said that I thought her comments seemed “contradictory and confused.” I’m not sure how this adds up to characterizing either of these writers as dismissive snobs.

Stephanie Zacharek, another reviewer I normally find above reproach, even when we often disagree, presented a different sort of attitude. I excerpted her as a way of illustrating how many critics seemed to be going out of their way to come up with overly elaborate metaphors for describing what was for them an unpleasant experience, and if I can be said to have gone the opposite direction with the same tactic, then so be it. But even though I genuinely believed Zacharek to have crossed a line into the realm of name-calling with her comment about the movie being an experiment to gauge how little audiences would settle for, I don’t see how my response is in any way a retort on an equal plane of disregard. I merely, with some sarcasm, carried Zacharek’s remark to its logical conclusion. Am I being too sensitive in my taking offense?

Even my jab at Armond White was based more on his predictable characterization of the movie as irredeemably, morally offensive, especially in the light of comparison to one of his own pet favorites. This insistence on denigrating one movie by talking up another is a particularly notorious tactic of his, and I thought it was fun pointing it out. I didn’t have to use Armond’s reaction to Speed Racer as evidence that he’s a dismissive snob; he’s plenty capable of doing that all by himself.

But I reserve a special kind of enmity for Walter Chaw’s approach. His is a unique cross-pollination of self-pity, self-aggrandizement and simple viciousness which usually results in a scorched-earth mixture of intellectual engagement and fanboy nastiness with only one conclusion: Walter is right, and if you can hear anything above the sound of his gnashing teeth you’ll hear the message that anyone who disagrees is a moron. This is not an observation based solely on his review of Speed Racer. This is a pattern discernible over several years’ worth of writing. And so, yes, though I allowed his own words to speak for themselves to a great degree, I admit to finding his utter disregard for the possibility that the opinions of others might hold some validity, or at least be worthy of a hearing, offensive. And frankly, I don’t feel the need to generate any kind of review that engages in this kind of mean-spirited horseshit—I lost that impulse back in my post-college days, when I realized what everyone else around me already knew, that I did not know it all. So when Chaw, rather than discussing why something about the visual design of the movie doesn’t work for him, resorts to comments like “what's left is probably wondrous for the hardcore, diehard, pathetic-loser contingent,” I feel justified in pointing out, even tacitly, the deficiencies such a comment reveals both as film criticism and as social observation. Again, I never had to make a case for Chaw as an uber-snob—he’s more than capable of handling that task. You’ll notice that what I actually took him to task for was not his opinion, but how he expressed it—and rather poorly, in my judgment.
Yes, I don’t mind calling a writer out for saying something that implies those who disagree with him are idiots. That’s an intellectually bankrupt tack to take. And unless I start name-calling back, then I see that act of pointing out as one which attempts to engage with the writer’s methods and well as his ideas, not one of two dickheads beating against each other.This kind of nasty conduct is what Glenn Kenny was railing against when he took Armond White to task recently in the aftermath of that blistering (and weird) piece White wrote about the failings of film criticism. Kenny had had enough of White ripping him and his colleagues in print as being inept practitioners of the art and craft of film criticism, and then showing a nice face whenever they would run into each other at screenings. I think Bill makes a good point: why should this kind of belligerence be okay in print or on Web sites, when it would hardly be acceptable in real-life situations where rules of social behavior hold sway? And this made me laugh so hard I have to quote it here: “If this were a movie, and Dennis was being played by, say, Michael J. Fox, and the Rude Critic was being played by Ted McGinley, seeing Dennis push the Rude Critic into the lake (the film equivalent of calling him a dick), you'd stand up and cheer!” (Thanks, Bill. I wanna see that movie!)

What it comes down to is, I don’t care if a writer delivers an opinion that differs from mine. I may be alone in this, but I think it pretty much goes without saying that any critical commentary must by nature be understood to be subjective, a matter of opinion that is distinguished by the writer’s ability to use language effectively and back up his arguments, his opinions, with evidence visible in the film. But it certainly interests me when my own opinion is so divergent from the majority view. Therefore, I have to admit I’m confused when you say “It feels to me that you are ignoring their criticisms for why they hate it,” because it seems to me that by engaging in their point of view in the way that I did, I’m not ignoring their criticisms but directly challenging them. Isn’t that what I was doing by taking Jim seriously enough to counter his well-constructed arguments? One of the reasons why it was so much fun sparring with Jim’s piece was because it was the only one of the negative reviews I read that seriously challenged me to examine my own views and compelled me to put them into words. You may be suspect, and justifiably so, of reviews that spend time “dismantling” other reviews, but in doing so I honestly never felt that I did so out of a need to defend my own reaction.

As I said before, my reaction to Speed Racer was about the most pure reaction to a movie, other than maybe U2 3D, that I’ve had in quite a while. I never had any reason to suspect I was being disingenuous; that exhilaration I felt was mighty real as far as I was concerned. And I certainly never felt like I had to justify anything to myself about it. What’s to justify? The pleasures of a great work of pop art are self-evident. After enough exposure to self-important college students (and professors) cloaking their love of Rio Bravo or Rancho Notorious or The Naked Dawn in elaborate and intellectually suspect rationales designed to justify their swooning, I frankly lost whatever taste I may have ever had for such practices. An appreciation for Speed Racer doesn’t need justification any more than an appreciation for The Godfather does, and believe me, I did not stay up late Monday night trying to think up excuses to make my excitement about this movie seem intellectually acceptable. There is no need to ascribe cultural significance to a work of pop art like Speed Racer. Its significance is self-contained within the expansive narrative and aesthetic pleasures it offers right there on the surface.

Jonathan, thanks for playing devil’s advocate, even if you weren’t playing; your willingness to speak your mind is invaluable. I appreciate the opportunity to answer your comments, and you can take them or leave them for what their worth. Believe it or not, I appreciate the challenge, if for no other reason than to clarify my point of view on the whole notion of bringing other critics’ work into my own. It was not done as an opportunity to show anyone up or knock anyone down (though in the cases of Mssrs. White and Chaw I might have been tempted). I really mostly wanted to use them to frame the argument to which I felt my views were in direct counter, and in Jim’s case I knew it’d be fun to spar with someone I respected who had caused me to examine and articulate my own feelings in a more serious way.

Anybody else seen the movie yet?!

bill said...

Dennis - I don't know that I'm in love with "Heist", but I enjoy it a lot. You're one of two people I know who were really annoyed by it, and the other person is also someone whose taste I deeply respect. I just find it puzzling, because I think the movie is so much fun. And judging from what I see on the internet, that line Danny DeVito has, "Everybody needs money; that's why they call it money" really seems to baffle a lot of people. But what's not to love??

I saw "The Winslow Boy" only once, many years ago, but I actually remember it being pretty wonderful, and I sometimes find myself wishing Mamet would go back to that kind of film. Jeremy Northam and Nigel Hawthorne were terrific. And "Spartan" is fan-frickin'-tastic! A great, uncompromising, hard-nosed action movie. I love it. I've never admired Val Kilmer more than I do in that movie.

I've only seen one, maybe two, episodes of "The Unit", and only one of them was written by Mamet. The reason I've seen so few is largely a timing issue. My brothers swear by the show (well, the first season, anyway). I do remember feeling thrilled and a little bewildered to be hearing that distinctive Mamet dialogue coming from a network TV show. I can't say more about the show than that, however.

And "Glengarry Glen Ross" is EVERYBODY'S favorite Mamet film. I wouldn't be surprised to learn it's Mamet's favorite Mamet film. James Foley should do nothing but adapt his plays to the screen. He did such a beautiful job with it. That is the gold standard when it comes to adapting Mamet, and I acknowledge that Mamet himself hasn't matched it yet.

PS - Speaking of movies that you want to come back to, like "Homicide" and "Life Aquatic" because you want to give them another chance, I've finally figured out two that I need to re-watch myself, because the praise showered on them has always baffled me: "Fight Club" and "Being John Malkovich". This should be some sort of internet-wide project, or something.

PPS - I will begin work on the script for "Critic School '84" as soon as I can.

Greg said...

I have a tendency to go all "Quiz Show" on people sometimes (my own term. Definition: When everyone is praising something or someone, the knee jerk tendency to go the other way like Congressman Derounian in Quiz Show). Notice the definition includes the words "knee jerk" as it is not always well formulated or thought out opinion. It is akin to "backlash" but with a more righteous stance.

And it certainly is not meant to imply that like Charles Van Doren you were being praised undeservedly. It is to imply that my reaction was knee-jerk more than anything else.

I will not counter anything you wrote in your response as I feel you acquitted yourself more than admirably and fully answered any lingering questions or doubts I had about your review.

In fact, now that you have responded, I should say that I never thought you were name calling outright, just that one might have that perception which, as you explained, was more a problem of perception on my part than anything else. I can see now that I was not reading the review as openly as I should have. There are two reasons for that.

One, I have a tendency, an annoying tendency, to challenge people's opinions. When I say that I don't mean the scorched earth opinion challenging that we have all seen from bloggers who will yell at you that the movie you like sucks or that this or that accepted classic is garbage. I mean that even when someone writes 3,000 words expressing their opinion, I still might want to ask them some direct questions to clarify certain points and see if they can back up their opinion further. I have noticed that same tendency in most of the bloggers and commenters I enjoy engaging with (you, Bill, Jim Emerson, Larry and Kimberly immediately come to mind but by no means are the only ones).

Two, and here's where I run into big problems - And I mean really big problems - I do not like modern day popcorn CGI extravaganzas. I simply don't like them. In fact, most of the time, I outright can't stand them. And so I often hear the charge of being "snobbish" lobbed against me as a result.

My two favorite genres are sci-fi and horror and yet I don't really enjoy much sci-fi or horror beyond the seventies. I do however enjoy dramas of today often. Why is that?

Sci-fi and Horror in the modern day have adopted camera and editing techniques that I feel detract from the proper telling of their story. Drama of today does not, for the most part, and so I still enjoy it. I believe at heart that I am in love with formal, or classical, styles of filmmaking.

It doesn't mean that I cannot recognize quality when I see it. I discussed CGI on my defunct culture blog in 2007 and promised I would see the more praised CGI's The Incredibles and Ratatouille. I did see them and were I a paid critic I would have given them good reviews. But I didn't like them. Or should I say, I did not enjoy the experience of watching them. They bored me to tears and I just wanted them to end. But I recognized then and now that just because they were not to my taste did not mean they were not good movies. I felt that both were good movies (and Ratatouille was mercifully free from an abundance of pop culture references - all hail Brad Bird) and I believe a well-informed critic can recognize quality even if it is not to their taste.

And that's the problem I see with the reviews that you brought up (see now I'm on your side). I believe that they, and many reviewers unfortunately go according to their own taste. I don't mean that film criticism should be a sterile, objective affair. I believe the personality of the critic should be at all times present but that good criticism should recognize, admire and reward quality, whether the reviewer personally has a taste for it or not.

That's probably an impossible argument to defend (being subjective and objective at the same moment) but I'm hoping that what I mean is intuitively understood, since I can explain it no further.

Anyway, I brought a lot of this with me to reading your review. You see, I watched that 3 minute clip of Speed Racer and hated every second of it. And as such I think I identified ever so briefly with those critics you were calling out. As I watched those three minutes my thoughts on the movie and those that might like it were not kind. But I had to remind myself that I also recoiled in horror at the trailers of the CGI movies I mentioned above that I ended up recognizing as good movies.

So I apologize if I seemed a little defensive myself with my role as Devil's Advocate. And I again apologize to everyone who gets upset when I say I don't like CGI (because for some reason that really bugs people). And yes, I'm sure in some ways I am a movie snob, or at least give off that perception in my personal life if not necessarily online.

So there you go. Obviously I have absolutely no desire to see any more of Speed Racer than the three minutes I watched, but I'm sure I will anyway. It will just take some time and an iron will and when I do, if you're opinion on the film is correct (as to its quality) then I'm sure I will see it as a good movie, even if I don't enjoy it.

Ali Arikan said...

Dennis - My pleasure, mate. I tell 'em as I see 'em.

I haven't had a chance to see it yet. It was supposed to open here tomorrow, but it has since been moved to 20th June. What with your spirited defense, and the promise of a longer piece on the film by Jim, I can't wait to see it now...

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, discussion. I would never criticize someone directly for liking a movie I didn't or label their response as a moral failure. (And by the way, I reviewed Days of Thunder in the New York Post and gave it three stars!) I also think it's unfair for critics to attack Speed Racer for cynicism; the Wachowskis are extremely sincere, both in their commitment to using digital technology expressively and in their religious/transcendental philosophy. But before I go too far: What you wrote about Speed Racer conjured up the movie I WANTED to see and the Wachowskis wanted to make, not the movie I did see. And just because kids (mine included) didn't mind the spatial incoherence of the racing scenes and grooved on the sound and color doesn't mean that I have to; I think the least we can expect from those sequences is the degree of fluidity that the Wachowskis brought to, say, the transitions between scenes. I had the same problem with the highway chase in the awful Matrix Reloaded--the brothers and John Gaeta might have storyboarded the hell out of it, but they didn't seem to know how to give the illusion of fluidity, so all those great effects weren't set up right. And, also, I thought Speed Racer was UGLY. Anyway, good stuff, even if you use reviewers you disagree with as a springboard. (I love Armond White's thinking, but I wish he didn't structure every piece along the lines of defending movies other critics were too lazy and corrupt to get or attacking movies other critics were too lazy or corrupt to reject. He's better than that.) --David Edelstein

Brian Doan said...

*Sigh* And here I thought Speed Racer was one I could skip this summer, as I have little affection for the cartoon, and the preview didn't thrill me. And then I come here and read your brilliant, splendiforous, counter-intuitive, cinephiliacally sensual review, and I think, "Crap. Now I have to see that."

Thanks a lot, Cozzalio. (:

Would love to read your extended thoughts on Iron Man, too. I also enjoyed it (and hope to post about it in the next few days), and would enjoy seeing your specific take.

Bob Westal said...

Oy vey, I decide to return to the Cinephile blogosphere and, boy, what a extravaganza -- like many a cinema classic, a bit longish in the middle, but terrific, both entertaining and thought provoking and well worth the wordage. Both Campuspe and your spouse, Thom, are absolutely right. And, btw, I understand that the courts here in California have made that legal as of today, so congratulations. (In case anyone's actually reading this I'm joking. Unless I'm missing an important detail, I'm pretty sure that Dennis's kids wouldn't exist without his female wife.)

But seriously, Dennis, the single most depressing aspect of this whole "death of sufficiently paid film criticism" thing is that it applies to you. (Okay, I'm also not too thrilled that it applies to me.) It's not just that you're the real deal, it's that people like Jim Emerson know you're the real deal and you STILL don't have two or three major pubs in a bidding war over your services. On the other hand, the 'net giveth and the 'net taketh away, I guess.

As for the substance, I don't have much to add as I haven't seen "Speed Racer" though I may take a look at it. (Personally, though, I just find the look a bit ugly, like a Las Vegas casino I'd avoid. Great cast, however.)

Re: Jonathan's qualms, I will say that while I totally agree with your points about the critics and would probably take a very similar attitude if I movie I really enjoyed was as widely panned in this way, I do think there is just a natural defensive, almost chemical reaction to simple disagreement about something you really love (or hate) that effects this whole business.

For example, your passing reference to the Spiderman movies which, I quite like on the whole, as "toothless" together with the "Pirates" movies, which I strongly dislike on the whole, kind of started this slightly hurt feeling in my gut, or my spleen or pancreas or whatever. Now, you certainly didn't insult fans of those movies and I don't even know for a fact that you dislike them since "toothless" can mean a lot of things. It's not like even their biggest fans could call them, er, "toothy," or whatever. Anyhow, I'm still thinking that one through, but I guess what I'm saying is that, at some level, there's an unavoidable emotional reaction involved in this business -- but that's in no way an excuse to do the Armond White thing. Btw, it's never the wrong time to make fun of Mr. White. Never.

And, if you want to know about my opinion of "Red Belt," just read Bill's comment. I do think, however, that all you really need to think about it in figuring it out is that it's really just Mamet's version of "Golden Boy." (Well, I've only seen the bowdlerized movie, but that's a guess.) I will also add, however, that I think the movie baffled half the crowd I saw it with, at lesat.

I'm generally a Mamet fan, though my feelings are complex. (A post I wrote several weeks back about his recent purported political conversion got me linked to by a blog at the Guardian, leading to a flame war between me and a reader. Yay me.)

I have to admit that I'm almost afraid to see my two favorites of decades prior, the admittedly flawed "House of Games" and "Homicide" which, as a secular, passionately liberal Jew, brings up some pretty interesting feelings. I'm pretty afraid that I might like them less in my semi-maturity. "Heist", on the other hand, left me as cold as any Mamet film has. I missed "Spartan" probably as a partial result.

I do, however, heartily reccommend the (G-rated!) "The Winslow Boy." Just a darn nice movie about darn nice people doing the right thing. Sort of like "Mrs. Miniver" but better written. And, yes, you can trust Rebecca Pidgeon in that one (but just that one!) "State and Main" was fun, too.

And, finally, Bill, Roger Allam's one man show, "Hitchens Tonight, You Obsequious and Morally Debauched Faux Liberal Bastards"" is coming to an equity waver theater near you.

K. Bowen said...

thank you for doing the heavy lifting on this. Me, I just know I enjoyed the heck of it, and it was different from anything that I usually see. Were critics really confused by the narrative? I thought it was pretty easy to follow.

I love the sequence that you highlighted - the alternating close-ups during the radio conversation during the race. And I liked the comment someone else made about how free from the camera the film feels.


bill said...

Bob -

"Re: Jonathan's qualms, I will say that while I totally agree with your points about the critics and would probably take a very similar attitude if I movie I really enjoyed was as widely panned in this way, I do think there is just a natural defensive, almost chemical reaction to simple disagreement about something you really love (or hate) that effects this whole business."

I absolutely agree with you. Sometimes, I can't help but feel personally insulted when I see someone dismissing, say, Wes Anderson as "quirky". That doesn't mean I think I actually HAVE been personally insulted, but it feels that way.

That's just something that comes with being passionate about anything. If someone else is not only less than passionate about it, but then writes something disparaging about that thing about which you are passionate, then you have been disparaged in the process. It feels personal, but it doesn't actually HAVE to be personal, and that's where guys like Chaw and White go wrong.

Also, I picked up the Criterion "House of Games" last year, and I think it holds up really, really well. I've seen "Homicide" enough times to know that it still holds power for me (and I've heard rumblings that it, too, will be getting the Criterion treatment next year).

As for this:

"And, finally, Bill, Roger Allam's one man show, "Hitchens Tonight, You Obsequious and Morally Debauched Faux Liberal Bastards"" is coming to an equity waver theater near you."

I have to admit, this went right by me. I know Allam plays the villain in "Speed Racer". And I know that I, for the most part, like Hitchens, but I don't know if you know that. So...what am I missing? Am I being an idiot?

Bob Westal said...

Bill -- re: Hitchens -- I fear I may have stepped into the issue of political disagreement now as well....I'll try not to stir up any new hornets nests on this one.

Anyhow, I was just making an attempted joke about my view of Hitchens rhetorical style, particularly as it regarded his ardent support of the war in Iraq, in which he basically abandoned the left, quittting his gig at the Nation, and declaring himself a "single issue voter" in 2004. In this controversy, as in others, he tends to call into question the moral veracity and ideological credentials of the people he disagrees with, and that's putting it mildly. Back when he was still more or less entirely on the (semi-far) left, his contempt for anyone who would vote for a Clinton was quite clear, which got him a number of appearances on Fox, because a Clinton hating radical is still a Clinton hater.

Having said all that, I mostly liked Hitchens myself before he went completely bonkers, IMO, on Iraq, mainly because he's such a good writer, even while apparently half-drunk on a fairly regular basis. My feelings about his stance on religion are more complicated but I do think it says something about him that he literally wrote a book attacking the morality of Mother Theresa, "The Missionary Position". I personally find his criticisms a bit juvenile -- he's shocked that she's a religious conservative and took donations from some bad people. In the phraseology of the liberal blogosphere, he's something of a "purity troll." Never afraid to let the perfect be the enemy of the good and somehow winding up with the completely atrocious instead.

Let's just say that if, he were a movie critic, I think we'd be discussing Hitchens in the same way we might discuss some of the other names who've been bandied about here. I'd guess he'd come down halfway between A. White and Kael. Half brilliant but weird, half simply obnoxious.

Greg said...

I shouldn't be egging this on but I can't help myself (In the words of Mister Gabriel: I don't know how to stop, I don't know how to stop).

Anyway, the only point I wanted to parse with Bob is that Hitchens was once on the left. One of the reasons Hitch began to interest me in the early nineties after the Persian Gulf War was that he didn't seem to belong to any political idealogy. Sure, he worked for the Nation but he wrote articles celebrating Columbus and the early to mid-millenium Europeans wiping the Indians off the continent. It was one of those articles that you read kind of slack-jawed. And he bashed Democrats as regularly as he bashed Republicans. My main affinity for Hitch, as I've told Bill before, was for his literature musings and reviews but I also loved his takedown of Henry Kissinger in both book and documentary. Unlike Mother Theresa his case against Kissinger was solid. I should rephrase that. His case against Theresa was solid too it was just inconsequential. She was an egotist who harmed people and created more poor dying children by denying birth control and abortion but who the hell in a Catholic Convent doesn't stand by those beliefs? It's not like she was very much unique. But Kissinger he really dissected. He took apart the shifty strategies behind Vietnam and Chili and really exposed him.

Like I've told Bill before, I don't like his writing as much in the last few years. I bought "A Long Short War" because I'll read anything that's well written even if I disagree with it and found it lacking. The essays seemed rushed and half-hearted. Ditto for his "Jefferson" book. And his cheerleading for the war seems more like pretending he has never been wrong rather than an honest analysis.

Sorry Dennis to create a Hitch thread here. Just wanted to share a few thoughts with Bob and Bill on Hitch, who I strongly suspect will never see SPEED RACER. Ever.

Bob Westal said...

I think the reason that Hitch was hard to peg down ideologically before was that he's still basically an unreconstructed radical. I think I read somewhere that he and his buddy Martin Amis were essentially Trotskyites at one point, but the main point is that his hatred of the Clintons in those days was coming actually from a mostly leftish perspective. And he's always been the kind of radical leftist who dislikes liberals far more than he dislikes conservatives. (His brother is a well-known rightwing pundit in England.)

Still, I guess he's always had his reactionary tendencies (being around far lefties can bring out the reactionary in anyone, I've found through personal experience). I guess it's a case of a guy kind of moving around a circle around the ideological spectrum but claiming to always be coming from a consistent, essentially moral, perspective, and who most recently has the neocon right, where some other ex-Trotskyites also hang, as his closest radical brethren, if you follow me.

The only thing that's really consistent with Hitch is that those who disagree are Obsequious and Morally Debauched Faux left or right wing bastards.

And, actually, there's an excellent chance I'll see at least part of "Speed Racer", perhaps soon. There's just very little chance that I'll pay to see "Speed Racer" ever. I'm open-minded, but closed of wallet.

I know return thread to Mr. Cozzalio's control.

WelcometoLA said...

Jonathan, I always found Kissinger's strategies on "Chili" abhorrent, as well. Especially that time he took the beans off the negotiating table. That was really sneaky.

Greg said...

Okay Aydlette, I misspelled a word in a comment. Because that's never happened before in the history of blog commenting! Bob finished his comment by spelling "now" as "know". It happens. I was hungry, geez.

Always an editor aren't you? Do you treat Hap this way too?

bill said...

I'm going to leave most of this alone, other than to say that I find it your choice of words odd, Bob, when you say that Hitchens "abandoned the Left" when he chose to support the Iraq War. Is that really all it takes? I know it's THE issue, but I'm not aware of anyone claiming that William F. Buckley had abandoned the Right because he didn't support the war.

As for this: "...he tends to call into question the moral veracity and ideological credentials of the people he disagrees with..."

Let's be fair. EVERYBODY does this nowadays. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting someone who tends to call into question the moral veracity and ideological credentials of the people he disagrees with. Take it from a guy who (more or less) sides with the people who are regularly labeled Fascists. And before you say anything, I realize no one here said that, and I further realize that we Fascists aren't exactly pure in this regard, either. My point is just that to single Hitchens out seems a bit peculiar.

And Jonathan:

"Sure, he worked for the Nation but he wrote articles celebrating Columbus and the early to mid-millenium Europeans wiping the Indians off the continent."

Er...do you have a link to this?

PS - I hope I didn't sound snarky or peevish or whatever. I'm sleepy.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Maybe I'm just being politically naive (and I, like Bill, am going to leave this particular thread alone after this because I don't know a lot about Hitchens myself), but I took Allam's performance to be a simple evocation of Hitchens' persona. That it's done in the context of villainy is, I suppose, enough evidence to presume it was done with an agenda of sorts toward him, but I pretty much left the performance on the level of comedy and simply appreciated Allam's evocation not only of Hitchens but of Tim Curry.

And yeah, Jonathan, dish me up a bowl of that Allende chili too while you're at it. And don't spare the spicy!

Bill: You don’t know how much I’m looking forward to seeing Critic School ‘84!

I've always regretted missing The Winslow Boy in large part because I was so curious to see what a person with such a distinctive style would do with Merchant Ivory-type material. As for The Unit, I work on episodes occasionally here at work, and I find the perfectly cadenced dialogue so overwritten as to be almost at the level of self parody. I guess I’m shaping up as not the ideal audience for Mamet’s work, although you have piqued my interest about Redbelt and, dare I say, Spartan. How can I not indulge the kind of enthusiasm you display over that one. I’m in. (Or am I just too easy?)

Jonathan: Your comments about your aversion to CGI kind of make the same point I was trying to make in butting Speed Racer up against something like Days of Thunder and the even more ridiculously overproduced films of Michael Bay. Speed Racer, for all the perceived freneticism of the trailer, looked to be exactly the kind of movie that usually drives me to distraction and/or a pulsating headache, if not outright tears of frustration. So it was with great joy that I found myself responding to it in a way that was completely unexpected. I would agree with you that I just don’t much care for the template of the modern blockbuster. At the same time, however, I always try to be as open to possibilities as I can. That’s why it’s always painful to admit at the end of the year that I’m just not interested in catching up with some of the ones I missed. (One of those titles, The Great Debaters, is now out on DVD and I feel like giving it a go after all.) And to this comment I can only say, “Speak it, brother!”: Sci-fi and Horror in the modern day have adopted camera and editing techniques that I feel detract from the proper telling of their story. Drama of today does not, for the most part, and so I still enjoy it. I believe at heart that I am in love with formal, or classical, styles of filmmaking.

David: What a pleasure it is to have your company here. As everyone here knows, I’ve been an avid reader of yours since those days at the Village Voice when you were telling anyone who’d listen that Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis deserved Academy Awards for The Fly. You definitely honor me and my humble blog by taking part in the discussion, even if you were dragged into it through no fault of your own.

You say: “Just because kids (mine included) didn't mind the spatial incoherence of the racing scenes and grooved on the sound and color doesn't mean that I have to.” Point well taken. My time spent in the company of my girls enduring Madagascar, Bee Movie, Open Season and a host of other mediocrities is enough proof for me of the truth of what you say. But at the same time, when I do groove on the same things that my kids are responding to (Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Over the Hedge, Flushed Away or anything from Pixar, even the underperforming Cars) I get a huge kick out of it. And though I demarcate a difference between the semi-realism of that chase in the execrable Matrix Reloaded and the hallucinatory spinning, leaping, cars of Speed Racer, you are absolutely right about how the Wachowskis belly-flopped at almost every turn in those Matrix sequels. The bitter, metallic taste of those movies was still in my mouth when Speed Racer came down the pipe, so I wasn’t really looking forward to taking a drag. But then-- Well, you know…

Again, thanks so much for stopping by, David. It’s been a heady week, and made all the more so by your participation. I hope it won’t be the last time we see you around these here parts.

Brian: “Thanks a lot, Cozzalio. (:”

Heh heh heh! Thank you for your kind words. Gee, if I’d known the piece was gonna go over this well with everyone, I wouldn’t have cut it so short…

Actually, I really liked Iron Man a lot, and I wish I had time to write or say something less than perfunctory about it (school has been a vicious bear this week, and I’m entirely surprised that I’ve been as active here this week as I have been). I really enjoyed the sense (illusion) the movie gives of understanding how the suit functions—this really appealed to the technologically illiterate techno-geek inside me—though the sequence in which the first version is surreptitiously built under the not-so-watchful surveillance of those none-too-observant terrorists asks the audience to swallow a pretty big whopper about how much work like this could realistically be done without Tony Stark eventually getting caught mid-solder and executed for his subversion. Those flying scenes were spectacular in their simulation of what it might feel like to hurtle through the air inside a heavy metal tin can, even though they did steal a touch or two from Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant. And Downey and Bridges are impeccable, delightful and funny as hell without being overtly comic. These are major actors who seem to really dig being asked to elevate the comic book proceedings with their presence, and they are up to the task.

Bob: Sorry about the Spider-Man knock. I was indifferent to part 1 and quite liked part 2 (haven’t seen the third one yet), but my intention was just to hold up them up more as examples of the typical Hollywood way rather than to slam them as specific achievements. That said, I do hope Sam Raimi goes back to making Sam Raimi movies sometime soon. I’d love to see another movie by him as good as A Simple Plan.

I was planning to ask David E. to elaborate on his comment that Speed Racer looked ugly, but I’d wager your comment (“Personally, though, I just find the look a bit ugly, like a Las Vegas casino I'd avoid”) would sum it up for him nicely. And you and Bill have really convinced me that I should see Redbelt, reservations and all, and especially to revisit Homicide, which I sincerely hope I appreciate this time around—it just seems like a movie that I should have found fascinating (and I’m not even a secular, passionately liberal Jew—well, two out of three ain’t bad).

I also want to say how much I appreciate your very kind words regarding my writing. When I hear something like that from someone I respect, well, you know, it just seems to matter a whole lot more. I doubt I’ll ever make money from this, so it’s a good thing I never expected to! And though I have less and less time and energy to devote to it these days, writing this blog still remains a passion of mine, so I’m glad to see that it occasionally works for you and others too.

K: I’m taking the kids to see Speed Racer again tomorrow morning at the big Chinese in Hollywood. My reward for staying up all night reading unreadable textbooks! Thanks for the link and the props. And please stop by more often. There’s a big quiz coming up next week that you might have some fun with!

Bob Westal said...

Bill-- Just to keep it really factual, Hitchens quit The Nation over the Iraq war, saying he could no longer countenance the lack of concern with the Iraqui people that he perceived as common on the left and really did describe himself as a "single issue voter." IMO, if he wanted to remain as a force on the left, he could have stayed at the Nation as their resident "liberal hawk." Instead, he seems pretty clearly to have chosen to himself persona non grata in liberal circles, though he may have held on to some of his leftish ideas (to some, atheism is leftwing) and, maybe, a few friends. As for the rest, that's really more about Hitchens' personality/persona than anything about his actual positions (he irritated me that way even back when I maybe 67% agreed with him). I could make a case, but it would REALLY hijack this thread. Maybe we just disagree there.

Dennis -- I praise you, then a wiseacre comment derails the thread! Anyhow, nice to know I'm someone you respect. After this, however, I may have to step down to "tolerate." Best!

bill said...

Bob - That's cool. I apologize if I sounded nasty in any way.

oneking said...

As a 38 year-old man, here's my take on the film, from the standpoint of a fan who grew up with the original anime.

I took my wife to see this, despite the poor reviews. Simply put, we were both continually delighted with the film, and kept finding ourselves smiling, laughing, and anticipating new surprises around every corner.

A few years ago, when the series was released on dvd, I watched it for the first time, since I was a kid. As an adult, I was surprised at how much less I enjoyed the anime. Needless to say, the animation was pretty poor, the characterizations were over-the-top, and it was obvious that all the voices were shared between 2 or 3 people. As a result, I was rather underwhelmed.

Fast forward to this past weekend, with me watching the Wachowski's vision of this cult series. For me, the charm of the film is easy to explain. The Wachowskis had taken everything I loved about the series (the thrilling race sequences, the cool car, the villains, and Racer X) and brought it to the big screen, while avoiding all the things I hated (the poor animation, and the goofy voices).

The result was an epic presentation of a wonderous world full of joy and thrills, infused with characters that were warm and REAL, which kept all of the action consistently anchored, so that it never got boring, always moved forward, and kept me emotionally involved from start to finish.

Even more astounding, was that I, as a 38 year-old man, felt the joy and innocence of a 10 year old boy, again. The love and heart that went into this effort produced a MARVEL of a film. This has not happened, since Superman: The Movie, which is my all time favorite film.

So, in this cynic's opinion, the Wachowskis nailed this one. They did not pander to the "we're so cool" crowd, AT ALL. There is not a trace of cynicism or elitism in this film. It is in a word, PURE. Frankly, those who hate it just don't get it, or WON'T LET THEMSELVES GET IT, lest they betray their (perhaps subconcious)commitment to being above all of the commericial, cgi-driven, "happy meal" commodities out there.

The irony is that this film is the polar OPPOSITE of such cinema. Make no mistake! This is NOT "Scooby Doo" "Underdog" or "Alvin and the Chipmunks." This is an uncompromising attempt to give Speed Racer the epic treatment it deserves, add some heart and soul, and stay true to spirit of the original, throughout.

The problem is that not many folks nowadays care about Speed Racer. So, commercially, it's struggling. But as several other critics noted, this only serves to underscore the integrity of the Wahcowskis. They knew going into this, the limited appeal of the source material. Further, they knew that their refusal to camp it up or sexualize it would make it even MORE limited, demographically. But they stuck to their guns and did what they were hired to do. They brought Speed Racer to the big screen, FAITHFULLY. For that, I give them major props, and thank them for resurrecting feeling of joy and wonder that I thought were long gone.

Greg said...

So you're honored to have David stop by, you respect Bob and I get the chili jokes. I've got a right mind to not come back here and obsessively comment for ... uh... I'll say the next two posts.

There, that oughta show ya.

By the way, the above threat doesn't count if one of your next two posts is something I want to comment on.

Bill - I've been trying to find that damn article and I can't. But I'll keep searching and to aid in your search, it was written for his Minority Report column in The Nation in 1992 (500 year anniversary of the voyage).

Greg said...

Bill - You weren't being nasty, Bob's just too sensitive.


Bob - I was just saying that to make Bill feel better, I don't really think you're too sensitive.


Bill - if you accidentally read the next line even though you weren't supposed to, I was just saying that to make Bob feel better.


Bob - if you accidentally ... oh the hell with it.

You're both right.

I'm tired. I'm going to bed. Right after I have some chili.

The Mysterious Ad[ri.an B)e;ta]m.a.x. said...

This has nothing to do with this post, but when I type Sergio Leone into Google, you come up as the last entry on the very first page. There is something so wrong (or right) about that. You are taking over Sergio's legacy for yourself!! People will eventually come for the blog and wonder... "I LOVE this blog, but... who is this Sergio Leone chap?" (For "infield fly rule" you're #4 on the first page, so baseball has been thrown for a loss as well! Ha, ha.)

Robert Fiore said...

I made a point of seeing Speed Racer in IMAX in the first week, based on bitter memories of missing Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow in IMAX because I had a cold the first week it was out, and it tanked so badly it was pulled from IMAX after a week. I found it to be a wonderful spectacle. I think creating a spectacle is a natural use to make of cinema, and I find the reflexive rejection of spectacle to be a form of Puritanism. Likewise there have been more than enough good movies made over the years for the sole purpose of making a buck that this motive can't be dismissed out of hand. To me the "anti-capitalist" message and the pinhead existentialism are a thematic McGuffin to provide a rationale for the spectacle. I don't even think that the length is a problem; I think it needed space to develop its wackiness. The biggest trouble to my mind is that the Grand Prix sequence is an anticlimax.

The comparison to Sky Captain is to the point because that was a prime example of great production design going for naught because the human element went flat. (Parenthetically, the thing pulp adventure pastiches don't realize -- and I'm looking at you, Indiana Jones -- is that pulp adventure had its foundation in literary adventure fiction of the Robert Louis Stevenson/H. Rider Haggard/Alexandre Dumas/Rudyard Kipling ilk. What pulp adventure did was strip its models of all the tiresome literature -- Mowgli becomes Tarzan. Pastiches, on the other hand, are based solely on pulp adventure, which is a shallower pool to draw from.) Speed Racer doesn't fall into this trap not just because of its only slightly cloying family dynamics but the manic goofiness of the background characters, like the sportscasters. I only wish it had the nerve to be a kids' picture pure and simple. I got the distinct impression that they grafted on some low-level profanity to avoid the dreaded G rating ("You think one 'ass' will be enough?" "Better throw in another, and a nut punch for good measure.").

In the end the critical disdain is less significant than that the public had no use for it. Obviously Speed Racer overestimated the public appetite for Speed Racer in the same way Sky Captain overestimated the appetite for retro pulp. (Did anyone ever actually like the Speed Racer cartoons? For me it was something I watched because it was a cartoon and it was on, when I watched it.) I think there's a kind of spectacle that's just a little too rich for the mass audience, like Sky Captain, and Speed Racer, and the Terry Gilliam Baron Munchausen, to name a few. I think it's almost a certainty that Speed Racer will attract a cult, and its natural habitat may well be the midnight showing. I also have a feeling that like Jackie Brown, critics will look back at it and wonder why they underrated it so.

By the way, did you notice the interesting double feature at the UCLA Film Archive Billy Wilder Theater on Thursday the 22nd? An obscure Lubitsch, The Man I Killed, and The Scoundrel, one of the pictures from Ben Hecht's Astoria fiasco.

Anonymous said...

Awesome review. SPEED RACER is simply too innocent, snark-free, it demands you watch it as a child as that is the intended audience. Or those who remember what it was like.

The Tonic said...

I appreciate your efforts to defend this film. Personally, I haven't been so excited by a film in years. It's definitely getting a bum rap. I post about it here:


But to save you the time, basically it says that the Wachowskis made this film to be such an over-the-top spectacle that it's impossible to watch it and simply follow a narrative; it becomes a movie about the movie-watching experience itself. I don't think that was an accident.

That's no to detract from its many wonderful qualities as an action movie - it IS gorgeous and well-paced and exciting - but it's not really about going into the world of 2035 car racing as it is about going into the world of hyperkinetic Hollywood blockbuster movie-making. That is, it's conscious of what it is, and it makes sure we're conscious as well.

Or maybe I'm overthinking it.

Patrick Wahl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NateDredge said...

You've persuaided me to see it.

Ryland Walker Knight said...

Finally saw this, um, extravaganza. Yes. It is quite extravagant. In fact, I'd argue it's a fat kid and a monkey away from amazing. More later, perhaps at my blog. Thanks for this, btw, Dennis: it's really cool.

Chris Stangl said...

Dear Armond White,

I have seen 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY a dozen times, and was more thrilled by watching SPEED RACER once. I still consider myself a compassionate and human person, but go figure. You also may be interested to know that "Mach GoGoGo" is not "pre-anime", it is just anime, which in Japan refers to "animation" and in the US means "animation from Japan". Which means you're dumb.

Your friend, Chris Stangl

Anonymous said...

I dont know why they didnt turn up for days of thunder Directed by Tony Scott, DAYS OF THUNDER is reminiscent of his TOP GUN, the film that rocketed Cruise to stardom. Scott uses spectacular driving and racing scenes in this film, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound

Anonymous said...


I am an old fan of the SPEED RACER cartoon. I used to watch it in the mid 1970s. But when I heard there was to be a movie based upon the cartoon, I was a little appalled. Then I saw the trailer and I was certain that I did not want to see it.

But sentimentality overcome my reluctance and I went to see the movie anyway. What can I say? It has become my favorite movie from the Summer of 2008. It really surprised me at how much I loved it.

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