Monday, May 12, 2008

Speed Racer

Speed Racer has all the elements of its original Japanese anime source material: it’s exciting, ridiculous, cheesy, and strangely endearing. The Wachowski Brothers (of The Matrix) have made a faithful adaptation by keeping it fun and silly in equal measures. The filmmakers made bold choices, and I think they paid off. Don’t go expecting anything moving or spectacular, but do take the kids, and be prepared for fast-paced, family-friendly fun.

Based on the first Japanese anime show to be popular in the United States, Speed Racer revolves around a family of race car enthusiasts. You may think that the title is descriptive, but no; the lead character’s name is actually Speed Racer. Speed (Emile Hirsch) has only ever wanted to be a race car driver. He has always raced for his parents’ company, and as his dream of being the best comes true, he quickly falls under pressure from large companies wanting to buy him out. The more he learns about corruption within the sport, the more Speed wants to fight back and win with integrity. Susan Sarandon and John Goodman play Mom and Pops Racer, and Christina Ricci plays Trixie, Speed’s long-time love interest.

More than eye candy, the visuals in this film border on eye cocaine. The environments are digitally painted to look constantly bright and surreal, and objects in the background remain in focus even when they shouldn’t, much like hand-drawn animation. The richest colors pop off the screen at all times, yet I never felt assaulted by the style, which some viewers probably will. For me, the visuals enrich the fun. They will also likely hold up over time, because they never strive for realism. When computer animation attempts to be realistic, it usually looks dated within just a few years. Much like the hand-painted afterlife sequence in What Dreams May Come (1998), these visuals will probably never be duplicated, and are therefore likely to last.

Fans of the original show will recognize many iconic elements and phrases, but most viewers these days aren’t fans of the original show. The Wachowskis are playing to a niche market here, and that may hurt the film’s overall appeal. I think kids of all ages will enjoy Speed Racer, but some may stay away just because of how odd and specialized it is. Because the film occupies a world on par with the original show, it never achieves real depth of emotion. The actors do well with the material, but it’s more goofy and light-hearted than dramatic.

This isn’t necessarily a criticism. It would have been easy to make Speed Racer edgy for teens and adults, especially given the Wachowskis’ past films like The Matrix and V for Vendetta. Just a little violence and sexuality would have been very simple, but it wouldn’t have been true to the original cartoon, and that one criterion seems to have guided most of the decisions along the way. I predict this film will have many critics, but most of their criticisms will be applicable not only to the film, but to the original show. The two beat with one heart.

I was expecting to be thoroughly entertained by the visuals, but I wasn’t necessarily expecting to have a good time. I’m glad to say that Speed Racer delivers the kind of popcorn-fun you hope for in a summer movie. I hope this film finds its audience, because as quirky as it is, it succeeds as a piece of well-made escapism. Personally, I enjoyed watching a “live action anime.” It slides easily from silly, cartoonish kung-fu scenes to serious lessons about putting family first. It may be corny enough to feed Kansas, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming the “Go, Speed Racer, go!” theme song for days to come.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG for sequences of action, some violence and language.

While the non-stop action is intense, the violence itself is tame, even to the point that drivers don’t die in the races, but eject out of their cars in safety bubbles. There is one scene where mobsters are about to torture someone, but they never get around to it. Language is scattered throughout, but sparse. I think most kids will absolutely eat this up.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Iron Man

The Summer is off to a good start with Iron Man, a superhero film with a real head on its shoulders. As expected, there’s plenty of action and special effects along the way, but as countless terrible films have proven, smoke and mirrors aren’t enough. Almost all comic book movies have somewhat goofy premises, so it’s ultimately up to the characters to make or break such efforts. Iron Man understands these rules, and I’m pleased to report that characters take center stage in this quality comic adaptation.

Robert Downey Jr. gives a memorable performance as Tony Stark, a brilliant engineer who runs the world’s largest weapons manufacturing company. Stark comes across like a hodge-podge of other movie heroes: he’s a prolific, sharp-tongued, womanizing billionaire, and that’s an interesting place to begin a character’s journey. Much like Bruce Wayne, he has every luxury, but he doesn’t yet have purpose. When a terrorist organization holds Stark hostage and forces him to build missiles, he decides to stop manufacturing weapons of mass destruction and start building something else: something he can use to escape imprisonment and fight injustice.

The character of Iron Man reminds me of Batman mostly because of his origins. He chooses to be a superhero without any obvious powers or genetic mutations. His suit enables him to fly, have super strength, and use all kinds of weaponry, but it’s due to his own invention and craftsmanship. He doesn’t live by Spider-Man’s obligatory creed: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Tony Stark takes on the role solely out of personal conviction, and it’s a joy to see his character develop from a jerk into someone who really cares. Gwyneth Paltrow plays the “Money Penny-ish” Pepper Potts, Stark’s loyal assistant, and Jeff Bridges acts as Stark’s oldest friend and mentor.

Just as Batman Begins made a silly situation seem believable for the first time, so Iron Man succeeds in convincing us of an implausible idea. Iron Man isn’t quite as realistic as Batman Begins, nor is it as superb, but it does work on most levels. Robert Downey Jr. deserves much of the credit; in a difficult part that could have easily been performed all wrong, Downey Jr. makes Stark arrogant, yet lovable. He’s an endearing jerk, which is not an easy balance to achieve.

The visual effects are first-rate, and the story is genuinely compelling, but I’m sorry to say that the film takes some wrong steps in its final Act. Amidst a masterful blend of comic book thrills and genuine drama, the film resorts to a typical superhero finale, filled with some odd character choices and moments of cartoonish action. This mediocre climax feels very out of place, especially given the quality of action that has come before. When Iron Man first flies to the Middle East to unleash justice at the film’s half-way point, the combat scenes aren’t exactly realistic, but they are rewarding. The final battle just feels all wrong when compared to the rest of the film.

However, the last five minutes bring it all back, and the film ends on a fun and unexpected note. There’s also a bonus scene after the credits that will no doubt leave comic book fans cheering. Even though Iron Man takes place in an uncertain time period (combining modern technology like cell phones with futuristic elements like artificial intelligence and holographic computers), the film feels very modern and relevant. Iron Man deserves to be mentioned alongside other significant superhero films. It has its defects, but despite the weight of its flaws, Iron Man soars.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief suggestive content.

The violence in this film is on par with most James Bond films. There is one scene of sexuality, but it’s pretty tame. I think most young viewers would enjoy Iron Man, but the violence might be troubling for some. Kids aged 13-and-over will probably do fine; if they’re much younger than that, it depends on what they’ve seen before. People get shot, burned, blown-up, and more, but there isn’t much blood, nor does the violence linger. If you’re familiar with James Bond, you know how this works.