Speed Racer

Speed Racer movie poster

 

The good news is that Andy & Larry Wachowski’s Speed Racer is fun and eye-poppingly extra­or­di­nary to watch. As with their break­through The Matrix (1999), there’s the strong feel­ing that you’re see­ing some­thing new; not just emer­gent tech­nolo­gies but a whole new style of moviemak­ing. But the bad news is that it’s all… too much. Why under­take such huge effort and expense just to repli­cate the essence of a poorly writ­ten and cheaply ani­mated TV series that no one, not even the geeki­est Japan­ese animé otaku (fan­boy), really misses? This film might have been so much bet­ter if they had jet­ti­soned the bag­gage of the intel­lec­tual prop­erty (a mis­nomer in this case) and told an orig­i­nal story in this rad­i­cal new style.

The movie incar­na­tion of Speed Racer has inher­ited the visual quirks of the orig­i­nal 1960s car­toon, cross-bred with the information-rich com­put­er­ized motion graph­ics of mod­ern tele­vised sports. The color scheme is dom­i­nated by bright, pri­mary col­ors like War­ren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (made in a era before com­puter graph­ics and dig­i­tal color grad­ing). Talk­ing heads lat­er­ally pan across the screen, usu­ally redun­dantly nar­rat­ing the onscreen events for us. The effect is like watch­ing ESPN; when two cars crash, an announcer promptly tells us that two cars have crashed.

Christina Ricci in Speed RacerChristina Ricci can see for miles and miles

The film is also mod­eled after video games and Japan­ese animé in gen­eral. Huge sequences are entirely com­puter gen­er­ated, with what lit­tle live action pho­tog­ra­phy there is most likely shot against green­screen sound­stages. The Wachowskis’ res­i­dent spe­cial effects mad sci­en­tist John Gaeta metic­u­lously stages the many incred­i­ble car chases like bat­tles in a war movie from an alter­nate uni­verse. Like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and George Lucas’ Star Wars pre­quel trilo­gies, the movie prac­ti­cally is ani­mated. Just watch­ing it, it’s pos­si­ble to imag­ine what the tie-in video game must be like.

Every sin­gle line of dia­log is a cliché, and so too is the plot. Speed (Emile Hirsch) is a young race car dri­ver, a lone hon­est man in a cor­rupt indus­try. Yes, his name is actu­ally Mr… Speed… Racer. His dis­graced older brother Rex died a mys­ti­fy­ing death years before, pro­vid­ing Speed with the moti­va­tion to prove him­self both as a dri­ver and as an hon­est man. Pops and Mom Racer (Susan Saran­don and John Good­man) some­times appear in the same shot but hardly ever exchange words. Speed also has an insanely annoy­ing lit­tle brother with a Brook­lyn accent and, god help us all, a mon­key. The odd­ball extended Racer fam­ily also includes the Aus­tralian mechanic Sparky and Speed’s heli­copter pilot-slash-girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci, whom at some point has lost her endear­ing baby fat and now seems star­tlingly skinny). The whole gang appar­ently lives together in the same house, with Speed’s car parked in the liv­ing room like an extra sibling.

Lest all the action be of the vehic­u­lar vari­ety, the Wachowskis wisely scat­ter about a few awe­some wire-fu fight sequences designed (appar­ently not designed by The Matrix’s genius chore­o­g­ra­pher Woo-ping Yuen). The most excit­ing and visu­ally impres­sive fight takes place on a snowy plain, with the falling snow pro­vid­ing manga–like motion lines (a char­ac­ter­is­tic of Japan­ese comic books). The fights are even more fun when John Good­man gets in on the act, and one under­stands why he might have signed on to such a project (if for rea­sons other than a big stu­dio paycheck).

Emile Hirsch in Speed RacerLike audi­ences world­wide, Emile Hirsch is a lit­tle over­whelmed by the visuals

If I were to sin­gle out one tragic flaw, I would say that Speed Racer suf­fers, like Richard Kelly’s South­land Tales (read The Dork Report review), with too much back­story. Over­long for a kids movie, it’s almost one full hour before we get to the main plot: Speed Racer must join forces with adver­saries Racer X (Matthew Fox) and Taejo Togokhan (Korean pop­star Rain) to accom­plish something-or-other and defeat some kind of injus­tice that I can’t quite recall, all of which has some­thing to do with vet­eran racer Ben Burns (Richard “Shaft” Roundtree). Who can remem­ber details after two-plus hours of sheer sen­sory over­load? Speed Racer feels like a sequel to a movie we haven’t seen, with enough threads left dan­gling (mostly involv­ing the true story of Speed’s brother) to set up a hypo­thet­i­cal third episode.

For any num­ber of pos­si­ble rea­sons, this very expen­sive folly bombed and we almost cer­tainly won’t see that tril­ogy. The Wachowski broth­ers were per­ceived to have fum­bled the wildly pop­u­lar Matrix fran­chise with two obtuse sequels (although this Dork Reporter would argue in favor of the minor­ity opin­ion that the sec­ond, The Matrix Reloaded, is actu­ally their mas­ter­piece), they pro­duced the thick­headed V for Vendetta (mud­dy­ing up and widely miss­ing the point of the pow­er­ful anar­chist graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd), and one is rumored to have had a sex change. With such a track record it’s not sur­pris­ing that the moviego­ing pub­lic, even the genre-loving fan­boys that make up Chud.com and Ain’t It Cool News might have soured on them. Plus, the orig­i­nal Speed Racer car­toon is excep­tion­ally cheap and lame, so much so that even myself as a child could tell it was crap.

Warner Bros. revealed their embar­rass­ment by issu­ing the DVD as a bare-bones single-disc release, at time when even the crap­pi­est movie seems to merit a deluxe multi-disc pack­age padded out with hours of self-congratulatory value-added mate­r­ial. There’s noth­ing at all on the DVD about the obvi­ously ground­break­ing spe­cial effects. Instead, the film­mak­ers decided that what audi­ences wanted was more mon­key (the vile beastie stars in the clos­ing cred­its sequence) and more annoy­ing kid brother (who costars in a mock­men­tary fea­ture with an embar­rass­ingly poorly acted appear­ance by pro­ducer Joel Silver).


Offi­cial movie site: speedracerthemovie.warnerbros.com

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

The Big Lebowski

big_lebowski.jpg

 

In 1998, when all the world wanted from Joel Coen and Ethan Coen was another Fargo, they got The Big Lebowski instead. The Coens recently repeated this trick by fol­low­ing up another mas­ter­piece, No Coun­try for Old Men, with the happy-go-lucky Burn After Read­ing. The Dork Report won­ders if this com­pul­sion is by design or if the Coens just can’t help themselves.

Viewed with some puz­zle­ment upon release, The Big Lebowski is now the sub­ject of pop art, annual con­ven­tions, and action fig­ures. The far­ci­cal film noir is ulti­mately an extended “wrong man accused” pas­tiche in the spirit of Alfred Hitch­cock and Ray­mond Chan­dler, but The Coen Broth­ers infuse it with their trade­mark anar­chic spirit and pop­u­late it with char­ac­ters with low (or oth­er­wise chem­i­cally impaired) I.Q.

big_lebowski1.jpgWe don’t roll on Shabbos

The film’s 10th anniver­sary was recently cel­e­brated in a Rolling Stone fea­ture arti­cle, The Decade of the Dude by Andy Greene. John Good­man, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, and Sam Elliott reveal a wealth of anec­dotes and all seem gen­uinely delighted at the film’s cult sta­tus. Good­man, how­ever, alludes to hav­ing had a kind of falling out with the Coens after Oh Brother Where Art Thou. The arti­cle also states that The Coen Broth­ers decline to dis­cuss the The Big Lebowski at all any­more, for unspec­i­fied rea­sons. How­ever, the DVD edi­tion screened by The Dork Report includes the orig­i­nal 1998 con­tem­po­rary elec­tronic press kit includ­ing an inter­view with the Coen Broth­ers in which they gamely dis­cuss the pro­duc­tion (Joel is cred­ited as direc­tor and Ethan as writer, but in truth they have always shared the duties equally). The DVD also pro­vides a peek at cin­e­matog­ra­pher Roger Deakins’ spec­tac­u­lar fan­tasy sequences and unique bowl­ing footage actu­al­ized with a motor­ized cam­era capa­ble of run­ning up to 20 M.P.H.

Jeff Bridges reveals the extent of his actorly craft in prepar­ing for each scene: he would sim­ply ask The Coens, “Did the Dude burn one on the way over?” Most often, the answer was yes, so he would rub his eyes to approx­i­mate the degree of red­ness appro­pri­ate, and pro­ceed. The Dude copes with the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of life with the motto “The Dude abides,” but the cir­cum­stances in which he finds him­self dur­ing this mis­ad­ven­ture leave him less in a state of zen than one of para­noia. No doubt a life­time of pot abuse has harshed his mel­low somewhat.

big_lebowski2.jpgYou don’t &$%# with the Jesus!

Despite hav­ing only barely more than a cameo appear­ance, John Tur­turro nearly steals the movie with the unfor­get­table char­ac­ter Jesus Quin­tana (that’s “Jesus” with a hard “J”), a sex­ual preda­tor and cock­sure bowler. The Coens speak about want­ing to write a Latino char­ac­ter for Tur­turro, but where did the rest of his out­ra­geous char­ac­ter­i­za­tion come from? Did they just wind Tur­turro up and let him go? Other notable cameos include David Thewlis (Naked, Harry Pot­ter) as a gig­gling asso­ciate of Maude (Moore), and musi­cians Aimee Mann and Flea as hap­less nihilists.


Offi­cial movie site: www.biglebowskidvd.com

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.