Wednesday, September 17, 2008

From the Archive: "Speed Racer" Blu-Ray Review

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

Continue reading after the jump to access my original Blu-Ray Review of “Speed Racer”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
“Speed Racer”
Blu-Ray Review originally published September 17th, 2008

Critics have rarely called a review this badly before, because Speed Racer was incredible; it was pure, unfiltered fun, and broke all kinds of new ground visually.  Of course, the movie was an epic flop, making less than 50 million dollars.  Still, fans have been hotly anticipating the Blu-Ray, because this is a film made for hi-def.  Sadly, the disc is a single layer BD-25, which has stirred controversy on the net due to possible video and audio compression; it’s a three-disc set, but with very few features.  Is this Blu-Ray disc everything fans hoped for, or does it crash and burn?  Find out in my review of Speed Racer on Blu-Ray Disc.

The Film:

Just as they did with The Matrix in 1999, the Wachowski Brothers have taken us into another world, and redefined the visual medium of film.  Speed Racer is not The Godfather; it’s not a movie that will win Best Picture or even come close to being critically acclaimed, but this is one of the most mind-blowing, revolutionary and downright fun pieces of filmmaking in years. 

Speed Racer (yes, that is his name) is a young man with natural racing instincts who idolized his older brother Rex, killed in a race years ago.  Speed is loyal to the family business, run by his dad Pops Racer.  The owner of Royalton Industries makes Speed a lucrative offer, but Speed rejects the offer, angering the owner. Speed also uncovers a secret that top corporate interests, including Royalton, are fixing races and cheating to gain profit. With the offer to Speed denied, Royalton wants to ensure that Speed will not win races. Speed finds support from his parents and his girlfriend Trixie and enters The Crucible in a partnership with the mysterious Racer X seeking to rescue his family's business and the racing sport itself.        

The Wachowski Brothers had quite a job on their hands in bringing the anime to theaters.  Speed Racer is such a fanciful, out-of-this-world type show that doing a straight, live-action racing film just wouldn’t cut it.  Then they had to write a two-hour plot that would stay true to the show and characters, but feel more cinematic in nature.  The music, pacing, casting choices and other elements would be other obstacles to overcome, and the Wachowski Brothers do it with expert precision.

Visually, Speed Racer is one of the most mind-blowing experiences I’ve ever had in a theater.  The Brothers wanted to make the film look like a live-action anime, and they hit the mark dead on.  Most of the film is actually CGI, filmed on a green-screen in hi-definition.  The cars, tracks, and general environment look like they were plucked right from the anime and turned 3-D.  The cars move fast and do some incredibly cool things that could never be done with 2-D animation.  The racing scenes are full of edge-of-your-seat thrills with some incredibly exciting and creative climaxes.  The live-action actors blend perfectly into this CGI world, though, and the result is spectacular.  The effect makes every shot and angle in the film feel just like a live-action anime should feel. 

A top notch cast is assembled her, led by Emile Hirsch as Speed himself.  Hirsch definitely looks the part, and brings a similar level of charm to the role as was present in the anime.  My only complaint with his performance is that he seems too depressed and angst-ridden sometimes.  I think this is a result of the writing more than the acting, but Speed should act more whimsical then this.  It’s a small complaint though, and he really finds the right balance in the last act of the film.

John Goodman fills the role of Pops Racer perfectly; he looks exactly like his anime counterpart, complete with an awesome moustache.  He is sincere in the role and is an all-around awesome parent.  Susan Sarandon is great as Speed’s Mom, and Christina Ricci sinks into the role of Speed’s girlfriend, Trixie, with ease.  She and Hirsch have a great on-screen chemistry, and she really shines when taking over the wheel from another driver later in the film.

But the man of the hour is Matthew Fox (Jack on Lost) as Racer X, the coolest character in the anime and the coolest character in the film.  Racer X may or may not be Speed’s brother (anyone who knows the anime knows the answer, but I don’t want to spoil it for those who don’t), and Fox is perfect in the role.  He just steals the show in every scene he’s present for.  He’s a bad-ass action hero with some demons in his past and is a character we can root for on the same level as Speed. 

The film is even better because of the great musical score by Michael Giacchino, the musician who writes the score to Lost.  His score is fast and exciting and really gets the blood pumping.  He puts in the Speed Racer theme song multiple times, first in brief snippets, building up a full orchestral version at the end. 

Speed Racer is a film with great visuals, phenomenal action, and a lot of heart.  At the center of it all is a family story, which pays off in spades.  It will leave you with a huge smile and a heightened blood pressure from the action. 

Film Rating: B+


So…the big question is, does the use of a single layer BD-25 hurt the video on this disc?  Speed Racer, being such a visually inventive film, should rightfully be one of the most jaw-dropping hi-def images of all time.  Is it so?

Well, let me put it this way.  I was unable to see the film digitally in DLP, and instead saw it on regular 35mm.  And while that was impressive, 35mm doesn’t hold a candle to this Blu-Ray image.  Not even close.

On Blu-Ray, Speed Racer will rock your world.  Colors in the film are bright and vivid, and the BD perfectly replicated that, with colors that are so strong and rich that they simply jump off the screen.  Detail is exquisite; every tiny little part of the image is easy to see, and you’ll notice plenty of things you never saw before.  The racing scenes in particular are something else; the mixture of the hi-def colors and unparalleled detail serve to bring the CGI to life as could never be realized in 35mm.  The result is an image that nearly looks three-dimensional.  I only noticed compression artifacting once, and it was barely noticeable, lasting for a fraction of a second and taking up only a few pixels; there’s some occasional softness, but it’s always brief and doesn’t impact the image.

The image isn’t perfect, but it’s 99.9 percent there, and simply put, this is the best hi-def image I’ve ever seen.  It’s truly a demo disc; if you want to show off your home theater to friends, pop this baby in and go to any random scene.  They’ll all do, though the racing scenes are so vivid, it becomes sensory overload.  And that’s a good thing.

But this image does come with a downside.  Most movies use a dual layer 50 gb disc, which allows for more room to let the image and audio breath, but Warner chose to give this film a single layer BD-25 disc.  While I can’t image the image looking any better, Warner did have to cut corners to make it look that good. 

The first area they did this in was the Audio.  They present it here only in Dolby 5.1, the same track used on the DVD.  Now, don’t get me wrong, this is a fantastic audio mix.  Dialouge is clear and crisp, with a perfect balance of music and sound effects.  Bass sounds are deep and rich, and were this a DVD, it would get top marks.  But this is a Blu-Ray disc, and it can do a lot more.  Blu-Ray isn’t just about the image; it’s about the audio, which on most discs is also presented in a “hi-def” form, usually referred to as “uncompressed.”  This means sound doesn’t have to be compressed to fit onto the disc, making for a richer track that blows DVD away.

But Speed Racer only contains the regular 5.1 mix, and while it sounds good, it doesn’t match the image.  Blu-Ray is about more than just a good looking video; if audio isn’t up to the same level, then you’re not getting the most bang for your buck.  Had Warner used a BD-50, this wouldn’t have been a problem.  

Still, the audio does its job, and the experience of watching the film on Blu-Ray is simply amazing.

Video Rating: 19.5/20
Audio Rating: 16/20


Speed Racer on Blu-Ray is a three disc set, though that’s not nearly as cool as it sounds.  The three discs are housed in a case that looks exactly like a normal BD case, with a flap inside that allows for all three discs to be present.  I certainly like that they’ve conserved space, but because of how thin all the disc holders have to be, discs 1 and 3 have a tendency to come loose.

Disc 1 is the only actual Blu-Ray disc in the set, and it contains the film, along with three bonus features.  Spritle in the Big Leagues runs about 15 minutes and is essentially a tour of the film set with actor Paulie Litt, who plays Spritle in the film; there’s also pop-up trivia that shows up frequently.  This is interesting, and it’s cool to see various aspects of production, but it’s definitely aimed at kids more than adults.

The second featurette is Speed Racer: Supercharged.  Lasting 15 minutes as well, this bonus is a sort of fake documentary which educates the viewer about the mechanics of cars and race tracks in the Speed Racer world.  This is actually pretty cool, and shows how ridiculously in-depth the car designs were for the film.  These first two featurettes are the only bonus features included on the standard-def DVD; not surprisingly, these are the ones kids will find the most enjoyment out of.

The final featurette, exclusive to BD, is Speed Racer: Car-Fu Cinema, a documentary about the special effects.  This is a straight-forward making-of piece, aimed at those who want to learn about the amazing effects of the film.  It’s well-made and, at 29 minutes, very thorough. 

Overall, the bonus features on the disc are solid, totaling to about an hour of content, and all of it is worth a watch.  But I know for a fact that the Wachowski Brothers shot hours and hours of bonus features, of which very little was used here.  I can sort of understand why; the film did flop after all, but if the material is already shot, then why not include it?  If the score for Extras tops at 10, then the general lack of features on a disc that should have included many calls for a 3 point deduction. 

But I have an even bigger problem with these featurettes; they are all 4x3 non-anamorphic.  WTF?  We live in the year 2008; I’ve bought maybe 2 DVD’s in the past year that have non-anamorphic bonus features.  It is standard for DVD’s to have 16x9 everything, let alone Blu-Ray discs.  You have to own a widescreen TV to watch Blu-Ray discs, so why in the world would you put on features that are non-anamorphic.  And for Speed Racer, I expected the bonuses to be in hi-definition.  But they’re not even in widescreen.  Another point deducted for this shoddy presentation of extras.

But we’re not done yet; the set includes two more discs, both of them useless.  The second disc, a standard DVD, contains the Crucible Challenge Racing Game, which is your standard interactive DVD game.  It sucks.  Hard.  There’s an abundance of glitches and lag that make it virtually unplayable, though it’s so boring to begin with, I don’t know who would want to play it.  And, to cap it all off, this disc is also in 4x3.  And no one buying this owns a 4x3 TV.  The third disc, also a regular DVD, contains a Digital Copy.  These are probably the silliest things to come out of Hollywood in a long time, but they’re easy to transfer and a good bonus for anyone who likes movies on the go. 

So, while both these discs are fairly useless, they don’t drive up the price of the set, and the Digital Copy is nice to have.  However, once the digital copy is used, the disc can never be used again, and I doubt I’ll ever touch that awful game disc again.  So what’s the only disc in here that matters?  Disc 1.  There’s another half a point off for wasting plastic.

In short, the extras we get are good, but the presentation is shoddy, and the extra discs amount to nothing more than colorful drink coasters.  Disappointing, but not horrible.

Extras and Presentation Rating: 5.5/10


I love having this movie in hi-definition; it’s amazing to watch.  But the audio is a mixed bag, as are the extras.  This should have been one disc; a BD-50 with the movie and lossless audio, along with the featurettes in hi-definition.  We don’t need discs 2 and 3.  But despite the questionable presentation, this set is a must-own for fans of the film.  The video alone warrants that, and it’s not like those extra discs weigh down the price; some stores, like Best Buy, are actually selling it for a few bucks less than normal.  It’s a mixed bag, but overall, I’m impressed.  I’ll definitely be watching the film again soon to take in the visual splendor.


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