beans: (l-r) Hirsch and Ricci in Speed Racer.
by Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski
When I was a kid, my brother Rick and I would get up early
on Saturday mornings, while the rest of the family dozed,
to watch Speed Racer, a cartoon that looked and sounded
a lot different from my usual choice of Bugs Bunny.
First off, the visuals lacked the surreal fluidity of, say,
Bugs, and the soundtrack seemed to consist entirely of the
sound of a motor racing along a highway, with the occasional
voice overs of protagonist Speed and his helicopter-piloting
gal-pal Trixie. Anybody who has seen the bonus footage on
The Incredibles DVD will recognize the flat intonations
of criminals saying things like “Darn you, Speed Racer! I’ll
be back!,” sentiments that come across as more humorous than
menacing. Nevertheless, Rick and I savored the action of the
episodes, and, as soon as the show concluded, we’d set up
parallel rows of orange and magenta plastic racetrack down
the stairs, across walls, and over furniture, so that we could
replicate Speed Racer’s derring-do with our Matchbox cars.
(Our vehicles, unlike Speed’s, always obeyed the laws of gravity.)
Needless to say, I was kind of psyched to take my kids to
see the Wachowski brothers’ big-screen adaptation of Speed
Racer, in which Emile Hirsch, late of Into the Wild,
imbues the title role with the all-American, nonthreatening
sexuality of, say, Zac Efron, or, in days gone by, Tab Hunter
or Ricky Nelson. It’s an appropriate casting choice. In fact,
the entire ensemble of Speed Racer, presumably chosen
as much for their ability to play off synthetic surfaces and
robotic entities as for their resemblances to the earlier
cartoon, evokes a kind of Americana frozen in the pre-Generation
X’s collective memory. Mom (Susan Sarandon), in bright apron
and pearls, flips pancakes in a dazzlingly beflowered kitchen,
while the extended family shares conversation. Pops (John
Goodman), having finally made peace with eldest son Rex’s
untimely racetrack death, quietly supports Speed’s decision
not to sign with megaconglomerate Royalton, run by the sinister
Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam), a CEO who would surely twirl his
mustachio a la Dick Dastardly, that is, if he had one. Meanwhile,
Trixie (Christina Ricci) and mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry)
provide support, and little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt)
and Chim Chim (a chimp) offer comic relief, such as slinging
monkey poop at a crucial moment.
The movie, which clocks in at a marathon 2 hours and 15 minutes,
revolves, literally, around Speed’s attempt to clean up the
Grand Prix, a major race which, it turns out, has been fixed
by the likes of Royalton for all of its 40-odd years. This
means going head to head with the big boys, the corporate
honchos who like the status quo; as such, it’s a lonely undertaking.
But with a family like the Racers, is Speed really quite alone?
Aided by the Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann) and his undercover
racers, including the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), Speed
embarks upon a gargantuan road race that defies all laws of
gravity, physics and relativity. The Wachowskis employ computer-generated
gimmicks, some as simple as inserting Speed and Trixie into
a computerized vehicle, others far more daring and visually
stimulating; the effect is successful in both re-creating
yet reinterpreting the features of the original Japanese anime.
Some have complained that the overall effect is jarring, even
headache-inducing. I thought it brilliant, one of the very
few times that moviemakers have converted an old TV show into
something other than camp.
Aside from the big race, and the bad guys’ attempts to foil
Speed Racer, there isn’t much else going on, although
the script, written by the Wachowskis, tries to fill gaps
by examining the Racer family’s sense of loss for Rex, of
the idea that doing something really and truly well is some
form of art, and portraying the importance of standing up
to wrongs. These things are all standard issue, but that doesn’t
mean that they don’t work. I wish that there had been more
of a sense of urgency or impending danger, as we know that
Speed Racer will not get killed, no matter how perilously
close his car gets to the edge of the cliff. I also wish that
there had been more going on between Speed and the is-he-good-or-is-he-bad
racer Taejo Togokhan (Rain). But the movie works, in a weird
way, by playing to our latent love for speed and driving.
At its end, I wanted to dig out those old hot rod tracks,
call my brother in Florida and see if he could meet me sometime
soon for some Matchbox reenacting. I wanted to get in my car,
high gas prices and baby car seats be damned, and just keep
by Pierre Salvadori
You’d think that a seductive Audrey Tautou making mischief
against the glorious backdrop of the south of France would
be enough to make an evening’s entertainment. It should have
been enough, but Priceless doesn’t live up to its billing
as a romantic comedy. The filmmakers apparently can’t—or aren’t
willing to—reconcile the romance with the comedy.
Tautou is Irène, a lovely young gold digger of the old school.
She travels with rich, debonair-but-desiccated old Jacques
(Vernon Dobtcheff) from one five-star hotel to the next; he
buys her gifts. Lots of gifts. When Jacques gets drunk and
passes out on her birthday, she heads for the hotel bar, pissed
off and looking for fun.
She mistakes bartender Jean (Gad Elmaleh) for a millionaire;
he takes advantage of the mistake, and they end the evening
in the royal suite. For reasons known only to the director,
a year passes and then the same situation repeats itself.
This time, however, Jean’s identity is embarrassingly revealed.
After exacting a delicious revenge, Irène abandons him. A
series of comically inspired incidents lead to Jean’s becoming
a gold digger, too.
When Irène sees that Jean has hooked up with a rich, elegant
grande dame, she’s intrigued—and inspired. Some of the film’s
funniest scenes follow, as she mentors him in the surprisingly
delicate art of whoring for baubles. While he has some success,
he never really relishes it; the mopey fellow is always one
unhappy thought away from displaying his default expression:
This is where the double standard in the material starts to
rankle, and the laughs dry up.
Tautou’s Irène is delightfully transparent about being in
it strictly for the money; we have no sympathy for the rich
fools who indulge her because the filmmakers don’t show any
emotional component to her gold digging. She’s charming! Jean,
however, is portrayed as a bit of a cad. His “patroness,”
Madeleine (Marie-Christine Adam, making quite a lot out of
very thin material), clearly enjoys deploying her most imperious
manner when threatening to dump him when he’s insufficiently
attentive. Overall, though, the filmmakers paint his behavior
toward her as shabby. He’s cruel!
This curdles the previously bright atmosphere, as the filmmakers
make Priceless about the noble, poor working man redeeming
the whore. Where is the evidence, in any moment the audience
has spent with Irène, that she needed to be redeemed? Bailed
out, yes, but saved? When they ride off together at
the end, penniless, on the scooter his former sugar mama thoughtfully
purchased, it’s depressing. (And grimly expected.) How in
the world will flighty, effervescent Irène ever enjoy life
on a bartender’s salary?
Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection, Vol. 2
knew? While the classic Warner Bros. cartoon archives with
the best of Bugs, Daffy and the Road Runner were sold, resold,
recut, retitled and generally exploited for decades, Universal
was carefully holding on to its library of Walter Lantz ’toons
starring dopey Andy Panda, perpetually hungry penguin Chilly
Willy and—of course—Woody Woodpecker.
The first volume was a terrific surprise last year, and this
follow-up is just as good. Woody Woodpecker could be annoying
pain in the ass, but most of the time he’s an enjoyably maniacal
red-topped demon, laughing hysterically while repaying a violent
attack (or even an impolite slight) with generous doses of
classic-era cartoon violence.
Guns. Bombs. Chainsaws. Kegs of gunpowder. And, of course,
that lethal beak of his, which he used like a pneumatic drill
on furniture and foreheads alike. Good stuff.
The plots are usually simple, but full of interesting bits—like
the termites who, inexplicably, come down from Mars to devour
Woody’s tree, or the nasty taxidermy professor who keeps a
“death row” jail of animals (including Woody) for his demonstrations.
This collection has every Woody cartoon from the early to
the late 1950s, plus a few Andy Pandas (mostly meh) from the
1940s and Chilly Willys (from the 1960s). There are even a
half-dozen shorts from the 1930s with Walt Disney’s creation,
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit; think Mickey Mouse with even less
personality. (The cartoons are funny for the gags, not the
Most interesting (of the non-Woodys) are the musical cartoons,
which set nonsensical action to classical or jazz music. As
they liked to say back then, “woo-hoo.”
may come as a surprise even to film buffs, but one of the
very best screwball comedies is also the one you may have
never heard of. Midnight, directed by Mitchell Leisen
and written by that dynamic duo of Billy Wilder and Charles
Brackett, is thankfully now available on a (bonus!) value-priced
DVD. This means that fans like me will no longer have to spend
time fruitlessly perusing the listings of Turner Classic Movies
in search of its once-in-a-blue-moon 3 AM showing—though you
can still get the cable-TV experience on the DVD, which has
an optional introduction by TCM host Robert Osborne.
Clocking in at an efficient 94 minutes, Midnight refers
to the time when every Cinderella must face the music. In
this case, Cindy’s one Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert), an
out-of-work singer who arrives in Paris during a torrential
downpour with nothing but the gold lamé dress on her back
and a plug nickel in her purse. Cabby Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche)
takes pity on Eve, offering to drive her around the city to
search for a job. While clearly attracted to each other, Eve
is determined to find bigger fish to fry, so she dumps Tibor
and sneaks into a swank society party, giving an unwitting
doorman a pawn ticket in lieu of an actual invitation. When
the hostess discovers the ruse and attempts to ferret out
the imposter, Eve stumbles onto a bridge game played by the
wealthy Helene (Mary Astor) and her paramour, the deliciously
named Jacques Pico (Francis Lederer). Unbeknownst to the panic
stricken, and obviously broke, Eve, Helene’s husband Georges
(John Barrymore) covers her losses, arranges for her to take
a luxurious suite at the Ritz, showers her with a gorgeous
wardrobe and, overall, creates the background for her impersonation
of one Baroness Czerny, late of Budapest. When Eve calls him
on his generosity, he responds that he simply wants her assistance
in luring Jacques away from Helene, whom he loves. Eve, recognizing
a golden opportunity to land on Easy Street (Jacques is the
heir to a champagne dynasty), gets to work. Meanwhile, Tibor,
anxious to find his missing would-be lady love, enlists the
aid of his taxi driver friends to scour the city for her.
The brisk pacing and witty, blistering dialogue spark the
already incendiary chemistry of the main players. Just when
Eve seems to have landed out of the fat, she finds herself
back in the frying pan, and the audience has to worry about
just how she’ll weather this latest crisis. Thankfully, Eve
is a first rate liar, a regular moral gymnast when it comes
to escaping the consequences of her actions, so that when,
for instance, it is revealed that the phone call on which
she has supposedly just placed an emergency call to Budapest
is not, in fact, working, she owns up to lie, but uses it
as a springboard to tell an even more fabulous tale—which
the wealthy suckers swallow it. In this way, the screwball
nature of the comedy keeps getting more surreal, more delicious,
and it perfectly blends the motivations of the characters
with the development of the story.
The DVD has only that Osborne introduction and a theatrical
trailer for extras, but the film itself is more than worth
the $14.99 list price.
and Clyde 2-Disc Special Edition (WHV)
groundbreaking box-office smash in 1967, actor-producer Warren
Beatty’s Bonnie and Clyde (directed by Arthur Penn)
has declined in reputation over the years. If it isn’t exactly
the great American road movie/gangster epic/love story it
was once seen to be, it’s still pretty good.
Clyde (Beatty) is a flashy, petty thief with seemingly boundless
confidence—except that he’s impotent. Bonnie (Faye Dunaway)
is a beautiful waitress-turned-robber, cool under pressure
and smart—except that she’s not smart enough to see that a
life of crime with dumb-ass Clyde is a ride to nowhere. Only
loosely based on the real-life 1930s gangsters, the two still
engage our interest because, basically, they’re great movie
stars and seem really cool. (Of the two, Dunaway does most
of the actual acting.)
What makes the film still watchable is its beautiful sense
of period—the small Texas towns still looked as they did in
the 1930s—and the appealing ensemble acting. All of the still-living
cast (Beatty, Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael
J. Pollard, Evans Evans) take part in the terrific making-of
documentary on disc two, except for one (Gene Wilder).
Also, the apocalyptic violence of the final scene, in which
the lovers are blasted to bits in a hail of machine-gun fire,
is still shocking. It is one of the great movie endings, ever.