Monday, 9 February 2009

Misunderstood Genius or Spectacular Failure?

...or simply something in between?

As some of the bigger films of 2008 start to trickle out to DVD, I can finally begin catching up on what so many folks were talking about last year. I usually watch most of the new releases by getting the 3 for $10 deal (for 5 days) from my local video store, so the trio I picked up a week or so ago (I am REALLY slow on the posts coming out of the 2009 gate...) was:

  • Burn After Reading
  • My Blueberry Nights
  • Speed Racer

Three vastly different movies that share a common trait: They were all pretty much eviscerated by many critics when first released. All three films suffered a raft of slings and arrows mostly due to high expectations given the directors involved (Coen Brothers, Wong Kar-Wai, Wachowski Brothers). But as their releases widened, all three seemed to find their fan bases and suddenly there were passionate defenses and appearances on Top 10 lists for the year. So I've been slightly curious...

As it turns out, all three share something else: In the end they all made me shrug "Meh". All had extraordinary moments and characteristics, but in the end just left me thinking "well, it wasn't bad, but...".

For example, the first 20-25 minutes of "Burn After Reading" was, frankly, boring...It turned a corner fortunately and Brad Pitt's comic turn was inspired at times (I also loved Richard Jenkins and Clooney), but the story failed me. I found it fizzled at the end and overall balanced out to a middling affair. I know it's a film about "nothing", but knowing that didn't help much in making it more interesting. I did laugh out loud at Clooney's "I meant the back seat, not a rear entry affair..." line - mainly due to his delivery.

With "My Blueberry Nights", I fully expected to be cringing with every line delivery by Norah Jones if early reviews were to be believed. But she wasn't that bad - not exactly subtle or with a wide range, but certainly at least adequate for the role she filled in the film. As well, the look of everything was gorgeous - Kar-Wai fills his frames with colour and care (though I was getting awfully sick of that jittery slow motion - it reminded me of cheesy 80s music videos). The setup and the idea of Jones reporting back her travels to Jude Law's Cafe owner was fine, but I found that neither of the two long stories (the first with Rachel Weisz and David Strathairn, the second with Natalie Portman) were really worth their length. Even typing that, I find it strange to think it - I should be happy to have the extended time with these people to flesh out their characters, especially with the quality of the actors (Weisz and Strathairn are pretty great). But I think it would've worked more towards helping the wrap around story and Jones' character if there had been at least one or two more stories as she hopped between waitress and barmaid jobs.

Then there's "Speed Racer" - hitting the Top and Bottom 10s of many of the bloggers and critics I respect the most. I was quite apprehensive going in, but was pleasantly surprised that the visuals weren't as distracting or headache inducing as I had been led to believe. As a matter of fact - they were stunning. Every single frame of the film looked like a Lite-Brite set had just exploded right underneath a rainbow. The race courses reminded me of the strange, convoluted ones I built as a kid using popsicle sticks, Hot Wheels tracks, cardboard tubes and anything else I could find lying around. These were much cooler though...And the acting was far superior to what I expected as both John Goodman and Susan Sarandon actually created real people within this cartoonish world. But again, it was the story that let the whole thing down. Dull, predictable and without a single interesting character outside the immediate family. I know the bad guys are supposed to be bad, but did they also have to be boring? I found that whenever the plot returned from the racing, I started to tune out or had to find refuge in the beautiful pictures. The additional issue - the one that brings it much further down my list for the year - was the character of Spritle Racer, Speed's young brother. What the hell were they thinking? He was, hands down, the most annoying unfunny character I've seen in the past year. Perhaps longer. I don't know the original show of Speed Racer, so I can't say if they were trying to recreate something from it or just felt they needed some humour for the kids. Whatever the case, they failed miserably. I gritted my teeth every single moment that kid was on screen while he mugged away and shouted his lines.

In the final analysis for me, all three films are somewhere below average if I take into account all the 2008 films I saw. Some great moments, sequences and acting - but stories that just didn't pull me in and never managed to get me to really care what happened in the end. I'm glad I saw them though (and actually have a strong urge to see "Speed Racer" again at some point...).

Next up? Probably "The Flight Of The Red Balloon", "Mister Lonely", "Pineapple Express", "Sukiyaki Western Django" and "Ping Pong Playa". So I'll report back on those sometime in, oh I don't know, June...


Anonymous said...

You captured my thoughts on Speed Racer and My Blueberry Nights almost completely. Although I did love the Rachel Weisz section - thought she was fantastic, and some of the shots (like her by the car near the end of her segment) were among the most gorgeous shots I've seen.

And I put Speed Racer in my top ten because I'm a total pushover for eye candy. I agree with you about the predictable story and script and annoying little brother - I just loved the visuals too much to care.

Bob Turnbull said...

Well, just putting Rachel Weisz in the frame is a good directorial decision for anyone, so yeah, that section of the film was my fave as well.

And I hear you about eye candy...I love visual feasts for the eyes and don't have a problem with film sometimes being all about form - but the story pulled me out of my reverie...B-)

Thanks for commenting Jandy. I'm going to have to spend some time on your site - that single post about music sites is going to demand a lot of my time (Pandora broke my heart when they stopped allowing Canadians to listen - due to licensing issues).

Shannon the Movie Moxie said...

Wow, interesting trio of films there Bob! Kinda strange when you see a bunch of stuff and then have similar reactions - that happens to me sometimes too.

I loved My Blueberry Nights though. Happy sigh.

I love the title of the post :)

Fox said...

How DARE you not love Burn After Reading and My Blueberry Nights as much as I did!!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Bob. Yeah, Pandora's georestriction was disappointing, even though it's not really their fault. I think Slacker is georestricted to the US as well, unfortunately.

And I ended up buying Speed Racer on Blu-ray, but I haven't rewatched the whole thing. Just bits and snippets to gape in awe at the visuals again. I'm shallow sometimes, I admit it.

Bob Turnbull said...

Fox - says the man who had the cojones to criticize "Man On Wire". Serves ya right!

At least you and Shannon have to allow that I had good things to say about Norah...Well, at least I had not bad things to say about her.

Jandy, Speed Racer on Blu-Ray must be pretty freaking gorgeous. And if you've read my comments about Rachel Weisz, you'll see I'm all in favour of shallow sometimes too...B-)

PIPER said...


I saw Burn After Reading recently because it had turned up on so many Top 10 lists for the year.

But it seems that after the Coen brothers put together a fantastic film, they follow it up with something incredibly self-serving. As if to say "let's give this a shot." It seems kind of lazy really. I felt the same way about The Big Lebowski

Within the first few minutes of Burn After Reading, I knew it was going to be a disappointment because Malkovich was letting fly with the F Bombs. I thought "so this is how you're going to get a reaction from me, huh?"

James Yates said...

'As it turns out, all three share something else: In the end they all made me shrug "Meh". All had extraordinary moments and characteristics, but in the end just left me thinking "well, it wasn't bad, but...".'

I think that this quote of yours is very telling. If I were a filmmaker, I'd much rather have someone either love or despise my's that teetering in-between that seems to be the worst. You did point out some excellent positives on these films, but based on that above quote, you probably won't be remembering them in the near future. And that seems to be the biggest nail in the coffin for any film.

Anonymous said...

Actually the movie Speed Racer was much more animated than the entire television series. The chimpanzee made me laugh, though.

Sukiyaki Western Django was a big disappointment for me, and I hated Burn After Reading.

I kinda liked My Blueberry Nights although I kept on imagining how it would have looked with Maggie Cheung instead of Norah Jones. Cheung is fluent in English, by the way.

PIPER said...


I'm with Peter here. Skip Sukiyaki Western Django.

It's a disappointment.

Shannon the Movie Moxie said...

Sukiyaki Western Django was a hell of a lot of fun. A little kitsch, sure, but great. I did see it at Midnight Madness so I'm sure the atmosphere had influence but not so much that it is a fun fill overall.

Bob Turnbull said...


Yeah, I kind felt the same way at the start of Burn After Reading. Malkovich's reaction just didn't work for me. I thought there must have been so many more interesting ways to approach that.


I think I'll definitely remember some pieces of these movies (Speed Racer's visuals are hard to forget and so is that freaking annoying kid) so they've each left a mark, but they certainly won't be recalled with great detail. Though I still feel like I need to see Speed Racer again...


Everything looks better with Maggie Cheung...I just re-watched Irma Vep the other night and she's so terrific in it. I love the cadence of her English speaking voice - particularly in the scene where she's being interviewed about films.

I think I'm still going to go ahead with Sukiyaki Western Django - I just need to satiate my curiosity which has been around for a year and a half now.

Uncle Gustav said...

Had Speed Racer been cut by an hour -- and, let's face it, who'd give a shit? -- I may have been able to get through it. But it was absolute torture.

Burn After Reading may have profited by the audience I saw it with. I live in a rural area, the Christian backbone of the GOP -- what can I tell you? Taxes here are significantly less than what I was paying in NY -- so to watch something chockablock with the word 'fuck' brings about a whole other side of viewing. There were times I laughed hysterically during the film, a lot of it over the freaking out going on around me.

Bob Turnbull said...

There were times I laughed hysterically during the film, a lot of it over the freaking out going on around me.

I gotta say, that would've added a whole different element to the film - I probably would've enjoyed it a whole lot more with an audience like that.

Trista DeVries said...

Nice work Bob. Not that I'm about to run out and grab any of these movies *tonight*, but I am certainly going to check them out at some point and this post (and the ensuing discussion) made it that much more enticing. I've heard many varied things about Speed Racer, so now I'm going to have to shell out to see it...

PS: Where IS this magical video store?

Kurt Halfyard said...

I haven't seed speedracer, but I have watched My Blueberry Nights half a dozen times, and I simply love that film...its a wkw sabbatical, nothing particularly knew, but like the pie in the film, delicious and familiar comfort food that goes down well on a rainy afternoon.

Burn After Reading is workmanlike and fun. I'm sure there is a rewatch in there or two.

Care to tackle the misunderstood BLINDNESS or the grossly ignored (well come award time anyway) Synecdoche NY?

Bob Turnbull said...

Trista, the video store is "Videoflicks" on Avenue Rd. It's got a lovely selection of older/foreign films downstairs.

Kurt, "Blindness" is absolutely on the radar and likely one of the next of the "new" films I pickup. I'm currently working through that Budd Boetticher 5 film box (also found at Videoflicks).

I saw "Synecdoche NY" at TIFF. It was my top film of the year. I still get all kinds of giggly when I think of the amount of ideas that Kaufman poured into it.