Friday, December 30, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!

Anticipation was high among fans of filmmaker Richard Linklater when it was announced that his follow-up to Boyhood (2014) would be Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) and it was being touted as a spiritual sequel of sorts to his beloved cult film Dazed and Confused (1993). While the latter took place on the last day of high school in 1976, the former takes place at the beginning of the college year in 1980. The film enjoyed positive critical notices but its limited theatrical release ensured a similar commercial trajectory to that of Dazed.

College freshman Jake (Blake Jenner) arrives in town with The Knack’s “My Sharona” blasting on his car stereo and his record collection in the backseat. He’s a pitcher who will be living in the same house as his baseball teammates. McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin) and Roper (Ryan Guzman) are the first two he meets with the former informing Jake that he hates pitchers. Jake heads upstairs and encounters friendlier faces – Finnegan (Glen Powell) and Willoughby (Wyatt Russell) – who are providing a running commentary on McReynolds and Roper’s attempt to replenish a waterbed with the latter telling Jake to read his copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (“Chapter 9 – blow your mind,” he tells him).

Linklater’s easygoing style of direction does an excellent job of taking us through the house, introducing Jake’s various teammates and giving them each a moment to make a memorable impression. It doesn’t take long for Jake and some of his teammates to go cruising for girls in a car where, en route, they proceed to sing along to “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang in a show-stopping scene. The rest of Everybody Wants Some!! chronicles the misadventures of these guys as they spend the next three days before the start of college hitting on and/or talking about girls, insulting each other and getting drunk – in other words, acting like young, horny guys.

The cast of relative unknown actors is uniformly excellent as they effortlessly become their respective characters. Linklater has always had a knack for getting exceptional performances out of young actors, starting with Slacker (1991) and continuing with this film. Among the standouts are Blake Jenner as the film’s nominal, good-natured protagonist, Glenn Powell as the smooth-talking Finn, and Wyatt Russell as the perpetually stoned pitcher cum philosopher Willoughby.

Like with many of his films, Linklater finds drama inherent in minor events, like the team getting kicked out of a nightclub when one of their own (the hilariously arrogant pitcher Jay Niles played to perfection by Juston Street) flips out, as it bond the new guys with the veterans. They stick up for one of their own even when they do something they don’t like.

Just past the halfway point we finally see these guys play some baseball in a scrimmage session and it becomes apparent how everything that has already occurred has been leading up to this point. Linklater has orchestrated this in his typically understated way. By the time Jake and his teammates go to a party hosted by performing arts students, one of whom (Zoey Deutch) he’s attracted to, we have become invested in these guys as Linklater takes them out of their comfort zone of baseball into a new experience, which continues their bonding experience as a team both on and off the field. For the first third of Everybody Wants Some!! I was wondering why I should care about these jocks (never having been one myself) but he pulls it off by deftly humanizing them in a wonderfully unassuming way.

Linklater understands the mentality of young athletes and how they are constantly in competition with each other, whether it is playing Ping-Pong or picking up girls, and some guys are gracious in defeat while others act like assholes because they hate to lose. The film provides insight into how these guys act and think, which doesn’t make it as accessible as Dazed and Confused, which limited its commercial appeal, but it is as just a personal statement. Dazed also had more significant female characters, which broadened its appeal. Not so much with Everybody, which has a predominantly male cast but they all aren’t macho Alpha Males with characters like Jake and Finn coming across as more relatable. Linklater manages to humanize most of the jocks in this film and, at the very least, show why they act the way they do.


Like he did with the young Mitch in Dazed and Confused, Linklater uses freshman Jake as a gateway into the world of Everybody Wants Some!!, which allows us to get the lay of the land – who everyone is and where they rank on the team’s social hierarchy. And like that earlier film, this one is hangout movie with Linklater acting as a cultural anthropologist, observing the behavior and practices of a specific subculture – Texas college baseball players. He has drawn on his own personal experiences, much as he did with Dazed, with an authenticity and attention to period detail of someone who lived it.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Snowden

At first glance, Edward Snowden’s life would make for an excellent political thriller. Here is someone who enlisted in the United States Army Reserve to fight in the Iraq War because he wanted to make a difference. When that didn’t pan out, he got a job in the CIA and distinguished himself thanks to his computer skills. From there, he worked for Dell and was soon assigned to the NSA. It was there that he became disillusioned with the global surveillance programs the U.S. government used in cooperation with telecommunications companies and European governments. He copied and then leaked classified information while hiding out in Hong Kong.

This kind of story would seem an ideal fit for a politically minded filmmaker like Oliver Stone who championed fiercely committed protagonists that buck the system in films like Salvador (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), and JFK (1991). Since that unprecedented run of films in the 1980s and 1990s, the director has slowed down somewhat. Sure, there was the ambitious historical epic Alexander (2004), but also the surprisingly toothless W. (2008), and the ultimately disappointing Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010). With Snowden (2016), there was the hope among his fans that the material would reinvigorate Stone and mark a return to form.

The film begins in June 2013 when Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) in Hong Kong. They go to his hotel room where he tells them his life story for a documentary she’s filming and an article he’s writing. Stone proceeds to employ flashbacks to tell Snowden’s story.

Much like Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, he joins the army out of a sense of duty and patriotism but a freak accident quickly derails his military career. Fortunately, Snowden has impressive computer skills and gets a job at the CIA where he becomes a different kind of soldier, armed with a P.C. He excels by demonstrating an uncanny ability to think outside the box, which impresses his instructor (Rhys Ifans).

The strongest scenes during his CIA training aren’t the actual training exercises but the quiet moments he has with senior analyst and teacher Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage) as they bond over the latter’s collection of vintage encryption and code-breaking devices. Nicolas Cage plays the man as a wise mentor and exudes an easy-going charisma as he tells Snowden how things work. It was a smart move on Stone’s part to have a skilled actor like Cage deliver exposition dialogue in a way that is engrossing. His chemistry with Gordon-Levitt is so enjoyable to watch that I’d love to see a film with just Forrester and Snowden.

Stone attempts to humanize Snowden through his interactions with girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) in a meet-cute in Washington, D.C. as his conservative patriotism playfully clashes with her leftist ideals. Their initial scenes foreshadow Snowden’s political awakening. Fortunately, Stone keeps Mills throughout the film thereby making her a crucial part of Snowden’s life and preventing her character from being reduced to the stock girlfriend role. It doesn’t hurt that he cast a strong actress in the part with Shailene Woodley.

Stone shows how Snowden’s belief in the U.S. government is gradually eroded when he is shown surveillance programs that can search anyone’s private email, chats, and hijack the camera on someone’s laptop for anything and this disturbs him. It is all fascinating and frightening at the same time because of its insidious nature. Stone gradually ratchets up the tension as Snowden and the journalists try to figure out what to do with the massive amount of information he’s given them and the implications of it.

Not surprisingly, the most compelling scenes in Snowden are the ones with him holed up in his hotel room with the Poitras, Greenwald and Scottish journalist Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) telling them what he knows. It is these scenes where Joseph Gordon-Levitt really excels by eerily channeling Snowden, right down to his distinctive voice and subtly mimicking his physical mannerisms.

Stone wisely doesn’t fall into the same trap as other films about computer hackers and try to portray what they do in a sexy, stylish way in order to keep our attention. Instead, he portrays it matter-of-factly as just another component of the film. Stylistically, Stone has left the full-throttled, multi-layered approach of films like JFK and Natural Born Killers (1994) behind long ago in favor of a more straightforward look with an emphasis on character and story. Unlike a lot of other films in the genre, Snowden not only puts a human face on it but also explores its moral and political implications in a thought-provoking way. Sadly, like Michael Mann’s Blackhat (2015), mainstream audiences weren’t interested in films about computer hacking no matter how compelling and Snowden failed to recoup its modest budget, which is a shame because his life is such a gripping story.


Snowden isn’t some fast-paced Jason Bourne spy movie. It is about a real person that decided to take an extreme risk to do what he thought was right. Like the protagonists in some of Stone’s other films, Snowden had to make a crucial decision that impacted the rest of his life but does it because he is compelled to do so through a strong sense of what he believes is right. Whether you agree or disagree with what he did, the film raises some troubling questions about our basic freedoms and rights in an age where we are under constant digital surveillance.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Thomas Crown Affair

On paper, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) must’ve looked like a sure-fire hit. Its stars – Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway – were coming off highly regarded films – The Sand Pebbles (1966) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) respectively. Behind the camera, director Norman Jewison had just completed In the Heat of the Night (1967) and brought cinematographer Haskell Wexler and editor Hal Ashby along for the ride, injecting dazzling style into the heist film antics of this new project, which included the much-lauded use of the split-screen process, giving key scenes more importance. The end result was a fun ride and a classy popcorn film.

Thomas Crown (McQueen) is a suave, very wealthy playboy that confidently makes and breaks deals every day. In his spare time, he orchestrates complex heists with a team of men that never know his identity. Jewison first employs the split-screen technique during this sequence so that we can see everyone in action simultaneously. He uses it judiciously, however, so that it doesn’t wear out its welcome. The team of four men are the epitome of professionalism, knowing exactly when the money will be available, how to neutralize the bank guards, and then how to make their getaway, ditching their disguises and disappearing into the busy Boston streets – all during the daytime!

It’s not like Crown needs the money – far from it. He gets off on the challenge of outwitting the law and the thrill of getting away it. For him, it is all a game and he meets his match in the form of independent insurance investigator Vicki Anderson (Dunaway) who is brought in to crack the case and recover the money. She is just as well-dressed, cultured and intelligent, exuding the same slick confidence. Naturally, these two beautiful people are attracted to each other and engage in a battle of wits that is fun to watch.

She teams up with police detective Eddie Malone (Paul Burke) and initially they don’t have much to go on. They put their brains together and try to figure out how it was done and who did it. The scene where they brainstorm ideas is a good one because it shows them trying to figure it out. Jewison also shows the legwork involved as they go over photographs and records, narrowing down the suspects.

Known for playing rough and ready, down-to-earth characters, McQueen is quite effective as a refined man so smart and wealthy that he creates elaborate schemes to steal money he doesn’t need simply to amuse himself. The actor plays Crown as an enigmatic character whose motivations are enticingly elusive and McQueen brings all of his considerable movie star charisma to the role.

Dunaway is his ideal foil as she plays a smart investigator that knows how to get Crown’s attention and engage him intellectually as evident in their first meeting where they flirt with each other while coyly probing to see what the other knows. Vicki is a beautiful and confident woman and the actress is clearly having fun in the role as evident in the mischievous smile that occasionally plays across her face. Both are willing to skirt the law to get what they want and she’s not afraid to admit that when Eddie calls the investigator on her questionable tactics.

The Thomas Crown Affair is a master class in editing as evident in the memorable scene where Jewison cuts between Crown and Vicki playing chess as we get close-ups of her mouth and his eyes mixed with shots of them playing as she uses all of her considerable charms to seduce him by coyly running her hand up her arm, running a finger slowly over her lips and suggestively stroking a chess piece. He fights off her advances for a little bit before succumbing. This is all done over Michel Legrand’s jazzy score, which epitomizes late 1960s cool. Jewison handles it all with a fantastic light touch as we watch these two beautiful people mess with each other and maybe even fall in love.

Boston lawyer Alan R.Trustman got the idea for The Thomas Crown Affair (originally entitled, The Crown Caper) one Sunday afternoon in 1966. He was bored and decided it would be fun to write a screenplay. He worked on it on Sundays and a few nights a week for two months until it was finished. He sent it to the William Morris Agency and got an agent. They, in turn, offered it to director Norman Jewison, fresh from The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966) at the end of March 1966. Given very little time to decide, he agreed to direct almost immediately. According to Jewison, Trustman’s script was more of a legal brief than anything else. It was 30 pages and what got the director’s attention was the central storyline and the two principal characters. He then worked with Trustman on and off for 15 months, transforming the brief into a script. Immediately, he recognized that the movie would be a “matter of style over content,” but the bank robbery was “ingenious” and the characters were “charismatic.” He credited Trustman’s legal training and “clever imagination” with creating a flawless bank robbery. Together, they fleshed out the characters.

Steve McQueen wanted to play Thomas Crown very badly and begged Jewison to cast him but the director wanted Sean Connery for the part. Trustman even had the latter in mind when he wrote the script! Connery wanted to take some time off after making the latest James Bond movie and so Jewison considered other actors rather than McQueen whom he felt was wrong for the role. The actor was determined and met with the director. He was struck by the actor pleading his case in person and that it “wasn’t about money or the deal or stardom. It was about the role.” He was impressed by the actor’s passion for the project and gave him the part.

Having worked with him before, Jewison knew that McQueen was a man of few words and had Trustman turn Crown “into a more laconic character.” The writer wasn’t happy with the casting of the actor but ended up watching all of his movies to get an idea of the man’s sensibilities. Trustman then rewrote the script with the actor in mind. McQueen was drawn to the part because he had wanted to change his image for over a year and saw Crown as “a rebel, like me. Sure, a high society rebel, but he’s my kind of cat. It was just that his outer fur was different – so I got me some fur.” To get ready for the role, he learned how to play polo in three weeks. Jewison remembered, “He was so competitive that he got out on the polo field and played until his hands bled.”

For the role of Vicki, Jewison wanted a European actress to play the role and considered the likes of Julie Christie, Vanessa Redgrave, Anouk Aimee, and Samantha Egger until Brigitte Bardot, whom Jewison also contacted, suggested the role by played by an American without an accent. He agreed and considered Sharon Tate, Candace Bergen and Raquel Welch. By mid-1967 he still hadn’t found the right actress. He wanted a beautiful woman with charisma and acting chops that could hold her own with McQueen. He had seen Faye Dunaway in an off-Broadway play a couple of years before and thought that she was good. He met with Arthur Penn who was editing his film Bonnie and Clyde and saw some of her scenes. She looked great and held her own with co-star Warren Beatty and he cast her as Vicki. She was drawn to the character because she was “an audacious woman who stopped at nothing. A risk-taker she was, always one jump ahead of everyone else. She was smarter than any of the boys, classier than any of the girls.”

Principal photography was scheduled to start in June ‘67 and by April the script was ready. In search of style over content, Jewison took cinematographer Haskell Wexler and editor Hal Ashby to Expo 67 in Montreal in June where they saw a short documentary entitled, “A Place to Stand” by Chris Chapman that employed multi-image screen techniques that impressed Jewison. He thought, “We could use the same technique in our movie, not as a gimmick but as a legitimate editorial tool and stylistic storytelling device.”

Jewison shot the first robbery with concealed cameras known only to the crew, the bank guards and the tellers. “Our actors scared a lot of customers and pedestrians who thought they were seeing a real robbery. But oddly, no one tried to interfere. I think they were afraid to get involved.” They spent three days shooting the famous chess scene. The kiss itself took a full day to shoot because Jewison wanted to get the lighting just right for the moment. According to Wexler, there was genuine heat between the two actors but off-camera she kept McQueen at arm’s length. Dunaway said of the scene: “Every man I’ve ever met since then, if we talk long enough, has mentioned the chess scene to me. And every man I’ve known since then who has been in love with me has loved that movie.”

The Thomas Crown Affair was made for $4 million and grossed $14 million at the box office but critics weren’t crazy about it. Roger Ebert gave it two-and-a-half out for four stars and felt that it was “possibly the most under-plotted, underwritten, over-photographed film of the year.” In her review for The New York Times, Renata Adler said it was “just the movie to see if you want to see an ordinary, not wonderful, but highly enjoyable movie.” Pauline Kael provided one of the more perceptive reviews when she wrote, “If we don’t deny the pleasures to be had from certain kinds of trash and accept The Thomas Crown Affair as a pretty fair example of entertaining trash, then we may ask if a piece of trash like this has any relationship to art. And I think it does.”

The joy of watching The Thomas Crown Affair is seeing Crown and Vicki get the upper hand on one another over the course of the film as we try to figure out if he will get away with it or if she will catch him. We also wonder just how personally involved each of them are – when does it stop being a game and get real? For some cineastes, “light entertainment” is a dirty phrase that connotes compromise and complacency but stylish trifles have their place too. The Thomas Crown Affair isn’t particularly deep but it isn’t supposed to be. Jewison’s film is a well-acted, beautifully shot piece of entertainment featuring two attractive leads engaged in a playful game of cat and mouse. Sometimes that is enough.


SOURCES

Dunaway, Faye with Betsy Sharkey. Looking for Gatsby. Simon & Schuster. 1995.

Jewison, Norman. This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me: An Autobiography. Thomas Dunne Books. 2005.


Terrill, Marshall. Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel. Plexus. 1993.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Speed Racer

In retrospect, the Wachowski brothers (at the time, Larry and Andy) peaked critically and commercially with The Matrix trilogy. The good will they endeared with the first film gradually dissipated until the full-on backlash came with the third installment from which they’ve never recovered. They continue to make ambitious, expensive sci-fi epics like Cloud Atlas (2012) and Jupiter Ascending (2015) to routinely negative reviews and lackluster box office returns.

It started with Speed Racer (2008), the Wachowskis’ attempt to reach a broader audience by making a family film based on the popular Japanese anime and manga of the same name. The film was high-profile flop, getting savaged by critics and failing to come close to recouping its pricey $120 million budget. In recent years, the film has begun to undergo something of a critical re-evaluation and I’ve always been struck by its strong visual sense and its touching ode to the familial bond as well as its thinly-veiled critique of the destructive effect of corporate greed on the purity of sports.

The young Speed Racer we first meet is a hyperactive dreamer that fantasizes about racing fast cars just like his older brother Rex (Scott Porter) whom he idolizes. He would rather spend all of his time at the racetrack hanging out with his brother than in school. Rex teaches his younger brother everything he knows, like how to use his instincts and his senses to race. It’s a wonderful scene that provides crucial insight into what motivates Speed to race – the love of the sport and of his brother who died tragically in a race.

The Wachowskis also use this scene to establish the film’s striking visual sense – a hyper-stylized, vibrant color scheme that hasn’t been seen to this degree since Warren Beatty’s bold take on Dick Tracy (1990). Speaking of Beatty’s opus, Cruncher Block (John Benfield) and his cartoonish goons (including one with the most glorious set of mutton chops I’ve ever seen) with their tommy guns seem like a nod to that film, albeit with a modern twist. Establishing the world of Speed Racer right from the get-go is an important decision because it let’s us know that this is a fantasy world with its own look, much like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) or Sin City (2005). The Wachowskis also introduce their innovative take on car racing and car chases, employing the immersive, time-bending aesthetic of the fight sequences in The Matrix films to Speed Racer, dubbed, appropriately enough, “car-fu.”

The flashbacks not only establish the emotional bond between Speed and Rex over racing but shows the cut-throat tactics rival racing teams will employ when a bomb is delivered to Speed’s home, only to be quickly dealt with by his brother. It is ominous foreshadowing of the lengths rival teams will go to in order to stop Speed.

The dilemma Speed (Emile Hirsch) faces comes in the form of E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam), the smug, super rich owner of Royalton Industries, and who courts the young driver to race for his team, enticing him with a lavish lifestyle and unlimited resources. The Wachowskis make a point of contrasting Royalton’s calculated corporate culture with its obedient, uniformed employees, automated car factory and rigorously physically trained racers with the Racer team that still works out of Pops (John Goodman) garage where he and Sparky (Kick Gurry) spend weeks building a car with their own hands. They are supported by a small team of people that consist of Speed’s mom (Susan Sarandon), his little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), and Speed’s girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci).

After rebuffing Royalton’s advances, Speed loses his next race, which leaves him disillusioned. It takes his mom to remind him what is important in life when she tells him, “When I watch you do some of the things you do I feel like I’m watching someone paint or make music. I go to the races to watch you make art and it’s beautiful and inspiring and everything art should be.” This passionate speech is the heart of the film and perfectly encapsulates its central theme. The rest of the film depicts Speed’s mission to expose Royalton’s corrupt practices with the help of the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox).

Emile Hirsch brings his trademark intensity to the role and it is interesting to see an actor who mostly plies his trade in challenging independent cinema bring that approach to a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. He manages to not get lost amidst all the eye-popping visual effects and has decent chemistry with Christina Ricci, whose big eyes and exuberant take on Trixie, resembles a live-action anime character.

John Goodman gets to engage in a couple of action sequences and, more importantly, a meaningful scene where Pops has a heart-to-heart talk with Speed. Veteran character actors like Goodman and Susan Sarandon tend to get lost in big budget blockbusters like this one – relegated to the margins in favor of CGI set pieces but the Wachowskis make sure that they are given moments to actually act and emote. Both of their moments occur at pivotal moments in the film where their characters give their son important advice about life.

Whole essays could be written about Speed Racer’s bold, visual aesthetic. For example, as Racer X’s attack on Cruncher Block’s mobile hang-out is chock-a-block with saturated reds and midnight blues that is pure visual catnip. The film’s style is its substance as the Wachowskis pay homage to the original anime while also making it uniquely their own and in doing so create a very personal movie within the studio system. One can see racing as a metaphor for filmmaking and the Wachowskis seeing themselves as Speed. Like, their principled protagonist, they do not want to lose their personal touch by being seduced with the lavish riches the studios can provide. Like Speed, they must remain true to themselves and the love for their art.

This is evident early on in a scene where Speed tells Royalton why he can’t be a part of his team by recounting a story of when he was young, staying up late one night with his father watching a vintage car race and how that rekindled his love for racing after his brother died. They got caught up in the race as if they were watching it for the first time – “But for Pops it isn’t just as a sport. It’s way more important than that. It’s like a religion.” One gets the feeling that is exactly how the Wachowskis feel about cinema. Naturally, Royalton mistakes Speed’s passion for naiveté and ridicules him, his glad-handing façade disappearing as he shows his true colors. He gives Speed a history lesson, claiming that competitive car racing is fueled by corporate greed and races like the iconic Grand Prix are fixed. He even goes so far as to threaten Speed, telling him that he won’t finish the next race and he’ll ruin Pop’s business.

The film’s innovative style extends to the flashback techniques the Wachowskis employ, complete with stylish scene transitions that succinctly provide crucial motivation for key drivers in an impending race. The eye-popping visuals are unleashed in the Casa Cristo 5000, a deadly off-road race that killed Rex. All bets are off in this race as many drivers employ a myriad of dirty tricks, like shooting green goop at a rival, blades coming out of hubcaps, a sledgehammer launched from underneath a car, and one vehicle that catapult launches a nest of angry bees onto a rival’s car. The action is fast and furious as the Wachowskis are not bound by the traditional rules of physics and this allows them to embody the dynamics of a live-action cartoon in a way that is audacious and inventive as well as pure visual eye candy. This race lays the groundwork for the final one, which comes across as trippy fusion of Rollerball (1975) and Tron (1982) as all the other racers try to take out Speed – it’s the honest racer against a rigged system.

In fact, Rex gives up everything in order to protect his family. He turns his back on them, becomes a dirty racer and ultimately sacrifices his life. The Wachowskis make a point of showing the impact it has on his family. Once Speed becomes a professional racer he constantly lives in the shadow of Rex, honoring his memory and his accomplishments by refusing to beat his records, even though he could. For Speed, it is more than beating records and winning races – it’s about making his parents proud and racing for the sheer love of the sport.

The original 1960s Speed Racer cartoon was the Wachowskis’ introduction to Japanese animation or anime and the impetus for making the film was that “they wanted to do something their nephews and nieces could watch,” said producer Joel Silver in an interview. He had been trying to make a film adaptation since the early 1990s with Vince Vaughn, at one point, campaigning to play Racer X and the various others, like Johnny Depp and music video director Hype Williams, circling the project. Silver acquired the rights in 1996 and hired eight different screenwriters to crack adapting the property but none of them satisfied the demanding producer. While working with the Wachowskis on V for Vendetta (2005), he asked them if they’d be interested in making it. They were hesitant at first but agreed if they could bring something unique to the material.

For the look of the film, production designer Owen Paterson wanted something “quite timeless, retro and midcentury, but set some time in the future,” creating “a parallel world, an exaggeration of color and action and images.” According to visual effects supervisor John Gaeta, they set out to “create something that’s much more fantastical than what we saw in The Matrix films.” They took the idea that in animation there is no matching perspective between the background and foreground and applied photographic techniques so that they had a live-action film built out of flat layers of photos.

To that end, locations scouts and photographers took approximately 10 million 360-degree, high-definition photographs of settings in Greece, Morocco, Italy, France, Germany, Death Valley, and sections of the California coast using ultrahigh-definition cameras. According to Gaeta, they applied an enhancement to these photos or, “sometimes a matte painting over the locations, ahead of the live-action photography. So then, in the movie, out of the window of a Moroccan palace you see the Italian Alps. We have these bizarre combinations that don’t necessarily make sense but they create these very stunning images.” They were then used in scenes utilizing green screen technology on the sets of Studio Babelsberg near Berlin.

Roughly 75-85% of the film was shot on green screens with the rest done on vibrantly painted sets to match the look of the world the Wachowskis were creating. While more than 100 cars were modeled and created digitally, two of them – Speed’s Mach 5 and Racer X’s Shooting Star – were given full-sized replicas with the actors sitting in replica cockpits that were mounted on a hydraulic gimbal platform linked to racing software programmed to pre-conceived sequences.

When Speed Racer was released the critical brickbats came out in force with The New York Times’ A.O. Scott leading the charge: “Mobsters, detectives, sportscasters and ruthless rival racers all parade across the screen, but none of them generate the sparks of humor, danger, energy or nobility that would ignite a sense of pop magic. Speed Racer goes nowhere, and you’d be amazed how long the trip can take.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “D” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “This newest iteration is about a demon on wheels who’s chasin’ after someone for 135 minutes – which makes for an awful lot of wheel spinning.” The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane wrote, “You could call it entertainment, and use it to wow your children for a couple of hours. To me, it felt like Pop fascism, and I would keep them well away.” The rare positive review came from Time magazine’s Richard Corliss who wrote, “You can tell that everyone had liberated fun making the film; it feels like the group effort of Mensa kids let loose in the paint store.”

I’m ashamed to say that I was swayed by the negative reviews at the time and did not see Speed Racer on the big screen – something I regret deeply since. It was fellow blogger Dennis Cozzalio over at the Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog whose passionate defense of the film inspired me to check it out. He wrote, “Far from finding Speed Racer incoherent, I instead discovered it to be a whooshing marvel which challenged me to see a simple story with fresh, often incredulous eyes, one that doesn’t exploit easy nostalgia but instead takes an elastic approach to the familiar tropes of the cartoon, creating an experience of film merged with digital effects that folds back on itself in exhilarating new ways.”

Not surprisingly, Speed Racer proved to be too idiosyncratic for the masses but, by and large, the Wachowskis have managed to make the films they want to make despite repeated commercial and critical failures. Undoubtedly, the film is a complete failure, commercially speaking (it’s running time is too long for kids to sit through), but on artistic terms it is a triumph – a fascinating allegory for remaining true to one’s self as an artist. Speed Racer is a phantasmagoria of CGI imagery guaranteed to melt your eyeballs and a rare studio film unafraid to bite the corporate hand that fed it, all wrapped up in a brightly colored pop art bow.

SOURCES

Bowles, Scott. “First Look: Speed Racer’s Demon on Wheels.” USA Today. May 30, 2007.

Dunlop, Renee. “The Wachowski Brothers Bring Live Action Anime, Color and Movement to New Levels in Speed Racer.” CGSociety. May 16, 2008.

Hobart, Christy. “The Speed Racer Time Warp.” Los Angeles Times. May 8, 2008.

Kit, Borys. “Speed Hits Live-Action High Gear.” The Hollywood Reporter. November 1, 2006.

Lawrence, Will. “Speed Racer: Fast-Moving World of the Wachowski brothers.” The Telegraph. April 25, 2008.

McCarthy, Erin. “Speed Racer’s Breakthrough CGI Road Rally: Anatomy of a Scene.” Popular Mechanics. October 30, 2009.


“Wachowskis Are Good to Go Speed Racer.” Los Angeles Times. November 1, 2006.