Friday, May 09, 2008

"Speed Racer" -- * * *

Far from the disaster it had potential to be (though some will still make their case), "Speed Racer," the Wachowski Brothers' return to the directors' chair, is insanely entertaining, cheesy, whiz-bang fun for nearly all of its duration. The Wachowskis perfectly capture the tone and feel of the anime show on which its based, but the movie is most notable for the ground it breaks aesthetically. While some may find themselves inflicted with a headache or severe dizziness by the time closing credits hit, the movie is an undisputed visual feast that vaguely resembles being trapped inside a pinball machine for two hours. Letting you know what you're in for with a trippy swirl of colors preceding even the Warner Bros. logo, "Speed Racer" could best be described as a live-action Saturday morning cartoon, and it's a whole lot of fun, as long as you're willing to go with it.

Is the story particularly compelling? No. The thin plot is really besides the point here, but it works well enough. Like the television show, "Speed Racer" focuses on the retro-futuristic-world-set adventures of our titular hero (Emile Hirsch), an extremely talented, good-hearted racecar driver still numbing from the death of his brother, Rex, years ago. When Speed kindly rejects a lucrative offer from the maniacal Royalton (Roger Allam), the head of Royalton Industries, he also uncovers a secret that the company fixes races and manipulates top drivers to boost profits. Furious, Royalton vows Speed will never cross another finish line. With the help of his parents (John Goodman and Susan Sarandon) and his bowlcut-befitted girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), Speed must collaborate with former rival, Racer X (a blank-but-effectively-stoic Matthew Fox) to defeat Royalton, rescue his family's business, and restore goodness to the sport he loves, all culminating in him competing in the race that took his brother's life, "The Crucible."

There's just no getting around the fact that this movie looks fucking amazing. It was first film to be completely shot with Sony's new F-23 HD Camera, and the Wachowskis seem to have wanted to utilize it to the extreme. The color palette is unlike anything I can recall in recent cinema, with an emphasis on day-glo bright blues, purples, yellows and reds (fuschia factors in greatly as well), but it's not just the look of things that impress, but the whole visual style. With superfast editing, and cameras and backgrounds that have a tendency to swirl around characters, it's as if the Wachowskis made a list of everything they wanted to attempt stylistically/technically and tried to include it in here. They also employ a confounding, yet oddly hypnotic, technique of utilizing close-ups of talking heads zipping across the screen, as if on a conveyor belt, as shot transitions. Infused with lots of trippy moments, and with nearly every scene being a visual marvel, the movie seems to almost encourage ADD; for much of the first hour, every time I tried to focus on what was going on, I couldn't help being distracted by how amazing everything looked. The cinematography by David Tattersall (who photographed the "Star Wars" prequels) is top-notch, and the insanely fun, jaunty score by Michael Giacchino, which occasionally incorporates the show's theme song, seems to never ever stop, and only enhances the enjoyably frenetic experience.

Aside from just the colors and filmmaking techniques, the look here is stylized to the extreme, with scarcely anything looking remotely real. Explosions, planes, etc., nothing vaguely resembles how such a thing would look in the real world; everything is intentionally slightly "off" (even Susan Sarandon's bosoms look somewhat inflated). Even simple images, such as static shots of people standing in a vista of green grass and bushes, are jaw-dropping to look at here, but the racing scenes are obviously the money shots, so to speak. Keeping with the overall tone, there's not a smidgen of attention paid to realism, with cars jumping high in the air, spinning around, and often coming equipped with weapons, hyper-hydraulics and wheels that can flip 180 degrees. We never feel like anyone is in legitimate danger, but the races are still inexplicably exciting (one on an icy speedway is particularly cool). The locations of said races are almost as distractingly impressive visually, with settings ranging from deserts to tropical islands. The flick reportedly cost between $100 and 120 million, but based on how fantastic everything looks, I can't believe the figure was actually that low. IMAX has to be the way to see this, and I would imagine it'd make for even more ideal high viewing than "Harold and Kumar."

Those who show up to "Speed Racer" only based on the Wachowski's past violent, R-rated works like "The Matrix" trilogy, "Bound" and "V for Vendetta" (which they wrote, but didn't direct) might find themselves scratching their heads at the candy-coated squeaky-cleanness on display here. The filmmakers have stayed remarkably true to their animated source material, right down to the look, tone, feel and dialogue. There's not a wink of self-referencing, irony, or nods to pop culture, and there's only the occasional, intentional flouncing of the show's G-rated nature (we get two uses of "ass," a "damn," one un-bleeped "shit" and a "retard"). The dialogue is, for the most part, cheesetastic to the extreme, with characters saying things like "hubba hubba," "holy moley" and "I'm so impossibly proud to be your mom." The flashes of humor are kept appropriately juvenile, and a late film interruption to warn of cooties will evoke laughs from the young'ns and nods of approval from fans of the show.

Still, while there may be an absence of irony and embrace of all things cheese-driven, the script has some very clever sly acknowledgments of the proceedings, without crossing the line into distracting self-awareness. After a particularly schmaltzy monologue about family, and racing being "like a religion," our villain responds, without missing a beat, "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that sickening schmaltz," and there's a refreshingly anti-corporate message hammered home with lines like "This kind of company scares me" and "Major sponsors are like the devil" (never mind that the movie's being distributed by Time-Warner). But while the script is happy to keep the story thin and characters simple (though one character's decision near the very end is intriguing), there are frequent flashes of nutso-ness that keep things interesting. Though a seemingly inexplicable scene of vikings rubbing pelts on their faces confused me, Spritle and Chim-Chim's brief subtitled kung-fu sequence is inspired, as is their ride through the Royalton factory hopped up on candy to the strains of "Freebird" (quote from kid sitting behind me: "That was craaaaazy!"). And hey, any movie with a sequence of John Goodman singlehandedly wiping the floor with ninjas is alright with me.

The Wachowskis have assembled a very good cast, but performance-wise, there's not really much to talk about, honestly. All the actors do what they're supposed to do, but they're almost incidental. Hirsch is still looking Christopher McCandless gaunt, though a bit less rough and ragged than last we saw him; like everyone, he seems to have a plasticized sheen. Beyond that, there's not a lot to speak of; if he wanted a role to change the minds of people who think he's bland and overrated in the talent department, this won't be the character to do it. Sarandon and especially Goodman provide proper levels of warmth to their characters, while Allam is clearly having the most fun here as Royalton, just as over-the-top spittle-flying evil as he was in "V for Vendetta." Despite getting a racing scene of her own midway through, Ricci gets the least to do here of anyone, mostly just (literally) standing on the sidelines.

I've been reading through some of the pans of "Speed Racer," and the chief complaints have a tendency to be right on the money (All style and no substance? Check.) In his review, David Edelstein hilariously wrote, "The film is like a nightmare in which you’re trapped in an arcade with screens on all sides and no eyelids," and I can't necessarily disagree. That's clearly how some people are going to feel. The movie is exactly what it is, and you'll either find it hella-fun or hella-excruciating. I could easily see someone being worn out by what the Wachowskis are doing here, or feeling pounded into submission aesthetically. Personally, I was dazzled pretty much all the way through, prodded along with lots of "wow," but that's just me.

Noticeable, though, is the movie's length of 135 minutes; given the nature of the proceedings, this is a movie that probably would have been optimal running at 90. At its current running time, it IS unquestionably too long (there might be one too many pivotal races), but it thankfully doesn't drag, and never slips into "oh my God, it's still going" territory. When it ends, you'll likely leave the theater roused, not wearied. Content-wise, only two real issues come to mind. One is the Speed-Trixie romance that only serves to grind things to a halt, but it only takes up two scenes, if that. And, though it may be faithful to the series, that doesn't make much of the Spritle and Chim-Chim stuff any less irritating. Both characters have a tendency to mug non-stop, and occasionally lower the movie's brow a bit too much (Chim-Chim actually flings poo at one point).

Sometimes I'm good at forecasting these sort of things, but I have no idea at all how "Speed Racer's" going to do at the box office. Families could flock to it, or it could be a massive, money-losing bomb; wiser minds than I are already betting on the latter. It's ideal for kids, and those who can put themselves in that mindset, but it's likely to divide critics and adult audience members. But either way, it's remarkably successful at what it sets out to do, and I, for one, had a blast watching it. Whether its everyone's bag or not, no one could accuse this of being an assembly-line studio product, and it's a pleasure to see filmmakers like the Wachowskis taking genuine joy with their craft and clearly having fun with experimentation and breaking ground. Visually astounding for every second of its running time, "Speed Racer" is the ultimate filmic cotton candy, and I mean that in the best possible way.


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