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Cool beans: (l-r) Hirsch and Ricci in Speed Racer.

Vroom! Vroom!

By Laura Leon

Speed Racer

Directed 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 going.

Greedy

Priceless

Directed 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: wounded sincerity.

It’s disgusting.

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?

She won’t.

—Shawn Stone

The Last Laugh

By Shawn Stone

Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection, Vol. 2 (Universal)

Who 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 character.)

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.”

Midnight (Universal)

It 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.

—Laura Leon

Bonnie and Clyde 2-Disc Special Edition (WHV)

A 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.

—Shawn Stone


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