Saturday, May 24, 2008

Julian Perez Goes to the Movies

Generally, when Julian Perez goes to the movies, I make it an occasion: I buy a matinee ticket after work on a weekday, then go see one movie after another, walking from one theater to another. It sounds like I'm asking for trouble, but really, I've theater-hopped since elementary school and the only time I was ever caught was when I was out especially late one night at age 11, and my Mother came running into each movie theater screaming my name.

Last Wednesday, for instance, I saw, in one day, SPEED RACER, PRINCE CASPIAN, and the midnight showing of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL.


Let me tell you the one scene in PRINCE CASPIAN I found the most startling and dramatic: Prince Caspian, mad with wrath when he learned his uncle killed his Father, and with understandably low confidence in those four Brit Penvensie kids, loses heart and turns to a cruel Dwarf that wants to resurrect the White Witch. Deep underground in flame-lit caves, Caspian encounters a hooded growling werewolf dressed like a Pagan druid and a creepy parrot-woman that moves like a cross between a spider and a jerky silent film creature. Around a megalith-like stone table, one of them slices Caspian's hand and watches his blood trickle to the ground. Caspian, realizes, to his horror, that this is not what he wanted...

This was my favorite scene reading PRINCE CASPIAN as a kid, and I hoped it would make it to the final film. I was wildly pleased with the results, including the twist that it was Edmund that triumphantly smashed the Witch. Part of the reason that moment in the book made such an impression was the illustration: the werewolf, in contrast to the massive wolves in THE HOWLING, was creepily thin and elongated.

This to me, was the most interesting element of C.S. Lewis's books. The moments of Pagan darkness, blood sacrifice, menhirs, fairies and stonehenge. This only popped up on a few terrifying occasions, where Narnia was more like Robert E. Howard or Arthur Machen than WATERSHIP DOWN with cute fauns.

I went to see LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE for two scenes. The first was the Aslan sacrifice scene, which was disappointingly PG. The other was, I was curious about how they would play the scene where the White Witch tried to "seduce" Edmund. In the novel, this was done with food and flattery, but there was an undeniable sexual element.

As it turns out, in the movie, the scene was tame, with none of the Freudian stuff. I suspect this was because of the casting of Tilda Swinton. She was so sexless that it would have been impossible to play the scene that way.

Except for the one White Witch scene (where we remembered how much we missed Tilda Swinton, a much better enemy), the movie was mostly a generic, lifeless Hollywood fantasy epic, with the same burnout on the huge CGI battles, midgets, CGI creatures, and magic powers. I wonder if this must be how audiences felt about the Cecil B. de Mille style Biblical epic come 1964. It's all tired, it's all played out. Only with the horror, surprising in a "family" picture, was there a breath of fresh air.

The concepts Lewis introduced here weren't properly explored, so lots of people were confused. Instead of being called "New Narnians" and casting the battle between Telmarines and Old Narnians as a sort of "Civil War," with Prince Caspian as a uniting figure, the Telmarines came off as invaders. Prince Caspian's noble right to rule - so important for giving everyone on the side of good their motivation - was not even used.


Did the critics even see the exact same movie I did?

Alright, maybe the visual design was a little too over the top. It looked like a koala vomited a rainbow all over the picture. I had a massive migraine 45 minutes in. Still, the bright colors gave it all a distinct visual look. And that's why I liked SPEED RACER: It looked like the show, not a slick, "cool" update of the show. SPEED RACER may go down as the single most truthful film adaptation yet. Snake Oiler was there, still with his Elvis 'do, hurling snakes at his enemies. The side characters all had gimmicks, to the point where it looked like THE WARRIORS. It was a colorful adventure world where cars race in ice caves and can drive up mountains, and

The movie did what a movie like it should do: it brought the series to the screen, kept its spirit intact, and gave it psychology that made it all meaningful and complex. That in particular, was my favorite part. It's obvious the Wachowskis were inspired by James Caan's performance in ROLLERBALL.

In fact, the whole movie could be called ROLLERBALL IN RACING CARS. Like James Caan, Speed Racer was driven by subtler, quiet motives. The young actor that played him gave a subdued, thoughtful performance. The whole conflict acquired the grand dimensions of ROLLERBALL: it went from a story about a boy and his racing car surrounded by crazy characters, to the story of one person's quest for reality and personal authenticity, his desire to be himself in a system that wants to crush him and bring him down. Speed Racer was one part James Caan, another part Harrison Bergeron.

All the characters in the movie had humor and personality to burn. Matthew Fox deserves special props for his role as the supercool Racer X. He was mysterious, had a sense of justice, a controlled rage. He was the pinnacle of maturity and competence. He was ten times cooler than any Batman seen on screen thus far.

Spritel could have been an annoying kid. But instead, the Wachowskis gave him personality as a resourceful little bugger, who when discovered stowing away in the Mach 5, had the chutzpah to ask if they could go for ice cream.

Then you have Trixie. What I thought was interesting about her was, she and Speed are at a very, very late stage in their relationship, one where she is pretty much considered a part of the family Racer, and it's all less about passion and love and more about being there for each other. The moment when Speed vows to take her down the winner's circle and kiss her in front of all the flashbulbs...was a beautiful, sincere, romantic moment.

This movie also reminds me how much I'm in love with Susan Sarandon. She's a beautiful, beautiful actress of immense sensitivity. There's one scene where she pep-talks her boy Speed, and any other actress would have made it schmaltzy, but Susan Sarandon's depth of feeling made it important, significant. Why they didn't give her as much to do I'll never know.

The "world" of SPEED RACER is perfectly duplicated. It's a world of cross-country races in exotic foreign countries with onion domes and beautiful queens, improbable vehicles, guys with names like "Cannonball," organized crime, Ninjas, and stunts so mindblowing they could never be done in real life. The kids are gonna love it.

And don't forget the grownups, too. SPEED RACER has plenty of stuff to make you think. There is one big sign that SPEED RACER is done by the Matrix guys: it's very postmodern and explores the difference between reality and perception. Speed Racer has to come to grips with the fact the racing world is all faked, controlled by powerful business interests, and even the racer he admired most was a fake. In that sense, Speed's motivation to succeed is to give reality to a fake world.

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