Here's to the extremes of cinema. I watched the Wachowski brothers' Speed Racer not long after Eric Rohmer's The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, and the switch proved to be more illuminating than jarring. Rohmer imagines open-air theater circa 1607, the Wachowskis present an über-digitalized Neverland of gibbering humanoids and roaring titanium -- one is serenely archaic and the other is frantically futuristic, yet these two polar poles create such absolute worlds that the great elasticity of the medium is laid startlingly before your eyes. Both pictures are unlike anything I've ever seen. Who says we can't have Vermeer and Van Dongen? Let's stick to Speed Racer. As an André Bazin disciple who considers The Matrix trilogy the biggest cinematic nullity of all time, I went in ready to hate it. For quite a while, expectations were met: So much spinning and whooshing and faces sliding across the screen and lines shouted as if in the middle of a cockfight that, by the 15-minute mark, I was ready to recite that old Far Side punchline ("May I be excused? My brain is full"). Still, all the metaphors (arcade parlor, candy store, ADD tantrum, swirling puke) had already been taken by other critics, so I stuck around just to try to come up with a new description for this horror. I'm not sure exactly when it happened (The most pungent crimsons since Nicholas Ray? The tour through Roger Allam's neo-Jetsons conglomerate? Christina Ricci's ever-widening peepers?), but the damn thing gradually turned enchanting. Did the movie change, or did my conception of movies?
The jury is still out. I was never a fan of the late-'60s Japanese 'toon (Wacky Races was more to my liking, truth be told), although it's long become enough of a hipster fetish-object to be featured on Eric Stoltz's shirt in Pulp Fiction. Speaking of Tarantino, Speed Racer has some of the saturated intensity that informed the magnificent "Green Hornet" sequence in Kill Bill, even if what was there a burst of pop surrealism has here become the whole film. The Wachowskis are no strangers to useless inventions (remember that "bullet-time" crap?), and the endless lightshow abstraction exhausts just as much as it exhilarates. As Speed (Emile Hirsch) ricochets around the racing circuit along with mysterious rival Racer X (Matthew Fox), there is a weird disconnect between the film's pixel-driven fluidity and the hand-drawn jerkiness of the material that inspired it. And the theme of Commerce (competitions ruled by corporate greed) versus Art (the integrity of Speed's folks, played by John Goodman and Susan Sarandon) sounds tinny amid the fireworks of a Joel Silver production. What grounds the spectacle, pushing it beyond a two-hour ejaculation of sensation, is its yearning for innocence. If in the Matrix films the filmmakers wiped out every vestige of recognizable emotion, thought and soul in favor of degraded "coolness," here they seek to regain these discarded qualities. Do machines long to be made flesh? It's all the more fascinating and moving that the Wachowskis' search manifests itself in a childlike smashing of surfaces, the tearing of campy façades for the feeling underneath. Speed Racer might turn out to be as much of a dead-end as Sin City or 300, yet, unlike them, it's one that I'm dying to see again.
Speed Racer has been dismissed as an impersonal, audience-fleecing juggernaut, yet it's blindingly clear that the Wachowskis made it, with heartfelt directness, for themselves. Iron Man, on the other hand, is closer to a blockbuster mechanism, having been made with wide-ranging receipts in mind: There are detonations and brown-skinned targets for hawks, disarmament lip-service (shades of Superman IV!) for doves, and Robert Downey, Jr. transforming the Marvel Comics original into Irony Man for critics. All the same, I'm adding my voice to the chorus in praise of Downey, Jr. -- as the eponymous Super Tin Man, he zips through space with such blitheness ("Yeah. I can fly," he deadpans after mastering the rockets on his heels) that I was reminded of Dennis Quaid in Joe Dante's Innerspace, another instance of an ingenious actor taking flight while surrounded by layers of metal. Tony Stark (Downey) is a merrily amoral weapons industrialist whose dormant conscience is roused after he's imprisoned by Afghan warriors; humbled by the realization that the missiles his company has been making kill people, he emerges from the depths with a new soul, an electronic-ticker device (installed "like in the game Operation"), and a fairly awesome armor propelling him through the skies. Jon Favreau, the you're-so-money! guy, directs the hero's scenes with his Girl Friday (Gwyneth Paltrow, for once appealing) with some welcome humor, and the action sequences with affable clumsiness. Capitalist venality is the villain -- Middle Eastern insurgents are no match for the industrial terrorism of Jeff Bridges' Obadiah Stane -- yet Iron Man is more intriguing for its meta-narrative of celebrity redemption, in which Stark-Downey, surprised with his costume half off, quips: "Let's face it, this is not the worst thing you've caught me doing."
A box-office belly flop that steadily grew with time and tokes, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle has been officially accepted as the Up in Smoke of the new millennium. Okay, but it's also more: Its central joke -- the camera opened on the white would-be protagonists but instead followed the Asian characters usually made into buffoons -- remained politically acute even as the film floated from one surreal ganja gag to another. The sequel, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, isn't so much the duo's Cheech and Chong's Next Movie as it is their Still Smokin', namely a bag of shoddy skits that barely qualifies as a movie and taints pleasant memories of their previous clowning besides. The racist imbecility Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) waded through in their first film is inextricably a part of Homeland Security paranoia, so it's fitting that the color of their skin (plus the aural proximity of "bong" and "bomb") is enough for a government douche (Rod Corddry, odiously unfunny) to deduce a conspiracy between North Korea and Al Qaeda and send the boys over to Gitmo. The road back includes redneck Cyclopes, KKK keggers, and at least one cock surrounded by what looks like Osama bin Laden's beard, yet for a picture willing to leave a skid mark on the Bill of Rights, Escape from Guantanamo Bay is depressingly cowardly stuff, parachooting its crazies into George W.'s pad only to have the three light up and high-five. (I'd be more forgiving had the movie been funny, but its single laugh came from a flashback with an emo Harold in a "Y2K?" shirt.) Instead of looking for the El Dorado of munchies, the fellas crash a wedding and rescue the girl -- a sad end for Harold and Kumar, becoming indistinguishable from 27 Dresses and Made of Honor.
Reviewed May 17, 2008.