Tarzan in the Big City

When I was in middle school I started reading the Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. My dad had the whole set (all 24 of them) and I read them all. I was totally obsessed and to this day I lament the disappearance of most of those books. Because of the Tarzan series I read more books by Edgar Rice Burroughs so I know who Frank Frazetta is and I’m not lost when the name John Carter of Mars comes up. Edgar Rice Burroughs may be my own personal most-read author.

I’ll admit, his writing is a bit cheesy, mostly in the dialogue area. Of course, I’ve never read anything else written between the 1910s and 1940s – that I know of – so it could just be the era it was written in. But the fact of the matter is that Burroughs could write a good pulpy adventure story and I loved every minute I spent reading the Tarzan series, not to mention his numerous other works.

At this point you may be wondering why I’m bringing up books written by a man who’s been dead since 1950. Well, it’s because I finally watched the WB’s Tarzan – all eight episodes – and I feel compelled to review.

If you know nothing about Tarzan, you’re about to get a quick schooling (and shame on you for not knowing the real story of Tarzan, not the Disney-fied version). Lord and Lady Greystoke (AKA John and Alice Clayton) were on their way to the west coast of Africa were John was to investigate the treatment of black British subjects by another European power; they never made it. They were instead marooned in the middle of nowhere on the coast of Africa. Within nine months John, Jr. was born. A year later John, Sr. and his wife were both dead and the baby was being cared for by a great ape that had lost her own offspring in an accident.

The baby grew up as an ape and was called Tarzan. During that time he taught himself to read and write English from books his parents had brought with them and were still in the hut his father had built (though obviously he didn’t know anything about his real parents). About 20 years later he was introduced to the American Jane Porter and her father Archimedes, as well as several supporting characters that don’t really matter in a brief history of the real story of Tarzan. BTW, you saw that right, Jane is actually an American in the original story. Anyway, many mishaps and adventures befall the group, Tarzan saves Jane, Tarzan falls in love with Jane, eventually Tarzan and Jane get married and have a son named Jack, which is, in itself, a whole other story.

Being as it is that I know the original Tarzan story I’m probably harder to please than most people when it comes to film and TV adaptations involving one of my favorite characters. Even before I read the books I liked the idea of Tarzan (yes, at one point I wanted to be Jane so I could swing through the trees with Tarzan). So forgive me if I concentrate too much on odd details as this review goes on.

I’ve long felt that there hasn’t been a really good Tarzan adaptation to film or TV – at least not recently. Greystoke annoyed me (and I’ll tell you why when I get around to reviewing that film) and almost every other adaptation has been utterly forgettable. I’m not kidding, I know I’ve seen a few and I remember nothing about any of them. It’s a travesty, really, and one I’d like to see remedied. Enter WB’s Tarzan.

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Don’t let ‘Speed’ Pass you by!

I’m a big Speed Racer fan. I watched the cartoon religiously, bought posters, made a Mach 5 pinewood derby car (see Dee Animated‘s header if you have doubts)–I love it.

So when I heard the Wachowski brothers were taking on making a live-action Speed Racer, I was both excited and nervous. I loved the original Matrix and I knew they could take good care of comic book/anime style material, but Matrix 2 & 3… let’s be honest, they weren’t all that awesome.

So the day came and I went to my local IMAX (I mean, if I found I only wanted to see it once, might as well do it right) with worried expectations. The movie seemed a bit slow for the first half and pretty exciting for the second half, but all in all, worth the time and money. I was thinking, yeah, I guess maybe I’ll give this a B.

For me, I really have to let a movie kind of wash over me, like listening to a new CD. I need to feel it out a little. I felt out this new Speed Racer, and after giving it some more thought I realized there was a lot more going on that I had let my pre-conceived judgment get in the way of.

In other words, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much I did enjoy the movie.

Then Indiana Jones 4 comes out. How is this related? Well, I saw it on Thursday and family came into town over the weekend and wanted to go to a movie while in town on Saturday. (Thank Buddah Indy Jones 4 was sold out! Don’t get me wrong, but twice in the same weekend….) I suggested/convinced them to go to Speed Racer, thinking of all the movies out it was one I could do again.

The second time was definitely the charm.

Frankly, I am a little surprised it still hasn’t been recognized as the phenomenal film it is–at least by the fans–but perhaps they went in too judgmental like I did. So, I give you my review, a comparison of the old series vs. the new movie, pros and cons, music, and what to watch for if you’re seeing it for the first time or giving it a second chance (it’ll be longish, so grab yourself a snack and let’s roll):

The Original SPEED RACER:

First of all, I think we should all tip our hats to Peter Fernandez, the brains of the US side of Speed Racer. For those who knew nothing going into the movie, Speed Racer is the American version of a Japanese anime called Maha Go Go Go! Peter had previously done work on Astro Boy and signed up for the chance to work on Speed Racer. (See Planet Comic Book Radio for an interview recently done with Peter Fernandez. He talks about the show as well as the new movie)

The elements of a typical Speed Racer show include Speed doing impossible sorts of stunts with his car, all the while Spritle and Chim Chim are in the back, and usually fighting crime at the same time as winning a race. Throw in Racer X, some oddly named bad guys (Dr. Morebucks) and you’ve got it made.

How does the film compare? We saw Speed doing some impossible sorts of stunts, fighting crime, Racer X, etc. So aside from the quick dialogue traditional to an old Speed episode, I’d say the film stayed pretty true to the original anime.

Now there were some modernizing modifications, but I don’t see the big deal any Speed Racer fan would have with them. Speed Racer was made in the ’60s. Some of the ’60s stuff just isn’t going to work anymore. The new tracks I thought were an excellent touch in lending to the Speed Racer style of racing. And I think the production design is something Tatsuo Yoshida might have done himself if the manga had it been written in the present day.

THE CAST:
Emile Hirsch plays Speed Racer, and I thought a great cast as far as looks go. One of my cons for the films is this Speed doesn’t seem to have as much depth to him as the original series’ Speed. It may have been Hirsch’s acting, but he frankly doesn’t have that many lines when I thought about it, and I think only a sequel would really make that call clear. But I thought for sitting a car that isn’t really “moving” so to speak (green screen), he did a very good job making me believe he was “driving” that car.

John Goodman plays Pops Racer, and I thought his casting was spot on. He was everything I imagined a live action Pops Racer would be, and I think he brought more depth to the Pops character. I doubt the Academy would hand out many Oscars to the Speed Racer movie, but John, you’ve got my vote for at least a nomination as best supporting actor.

Christina Ricci plays Trixie, Speed’s girlfriend, also a good cast. Trixie in the original series was pretty “girl power” for the time, and Ricci took it to a modern level for Trixie. However, overall her performance was nothing revolutionary by any means. I think you could some it up with lots of alluring kind of smirks and seductive talking. Don’t get me wrong, I think she did well enough with the role, and maybe that’s just the way she was directed, but I would have liked to have seen just a little more.

Susan Sarandon plays Mom Racer. I’m not really a Sarandon fan, but I appreciated having her in this role, because I think she helped bring the Racer family together in the movie. She’s barely present in the old series (not super surprising with Japanese culture) and I liked her inclusion in the movie.

Paulie Litt plays Spritle, and they may well have named it Spritle Racer, cuz this kid stole the show. Although I never imagined Spritle as a freckled-face, practically red head, he is the quintessential younger brother. He and Chim Chim provided fantastic comic relief and probably one of my favorite scenes of the movie is when him and Chim Chim are battling in Japanese anime style. I hope to see Litt soon in the future.

The rest of the cast was well chosen too. I loved Royalton (kept thinking, is this Tim Curry’s brother?), thought the newish version of Inspector Detector was great, Sparky was also spot on, the bad guys were great, and I love all things Japanese, so Rain was a welcome guest as Taejo Togokahn.

On casting, I think it’s only fair to rate this movie A+

MUSIC:
We have Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles, Lost) to thank for a spectacular score. Something I always dislike is when the composer will just completely throw away any already established themes for the movie version of the show/video game, etc. Giacchino took the themes and ran with them.

I Am Speed” which plays right at the beginning is probably my favorite from the CD. Of course I’m thinking of all the color swirling as I’m listening to it, but from a musical standpoint, it’s telling us that we do in fact have a Speed Racer movie and it’s going to be big.

Racing’s In Our Blood” does a great job to heighten the emotion on the great scene where Speed and his father are watching the old Grand Prix race, by taking the original theme and slowing it down and turning it into a beautiful score.

And then of course we have parts of the original theme as well as hints through out all of the rest of the soundtrack, with the remaining score always playing back to the same style. The end theme song is by Ali Dee and the Deekompressors and I tend to favor the movie version over the remix single. I like that they’re trying to incorporate multiple languages and the original theme, as though the Wachowski’s wanted to tip off their hats one more time in homage to Speed.

Original Score: A
Pop Remix Theme: B+

FILM ELEMENTS:
The editing was revolutionary, and though likely unnoticed by most, reminded me of the same visual pleasure I got from seeing 24 the first time. It’s a little more complex than it looks, and truly a subtle homage to Japanese anime. I loved the composite of one image over another, it made me believe I was watching live action manga in all its full blown glory.

The production design was reminiscent of Tim Burton (no not the creepy side, the bright color side–he’s got two sides). I didn’t mind the Mach 6 design, as Speed in the original series had a couple extra versions of the Mach 5 he’d use on occasion.

EASTER EGGS:
This movie is full of little Speed Racer references and other fun things to tantalize fans. We got to see the majority of the characters in their cartoon version outfits–something not often done when transferred to the big screen. Speed jumps out of his car in the end in full blown Speed Racer pose. I loved Chim Chim wearing human pajamas and Spritle wearing monkey pajamas. Peter Fernandez appears as one of the announcers. The car jack sound effect was the same as the original–basically I found the movie to be a huge homage to the original show. I can’t understand the reviews I’ve seen that say otherwise.

STORY:
On first view I thought the story was a bit slow in going, but upon more thought I realized it was all just playing into the end and bringing us along to understand the journey of the Racer family. Perhaps it’s just cuz I come from a rare breed of the nuclear family, but I loved seeing a movie where the family stuck together and relied on each other–even if some members did it more distantly. The race truly did become “a work of art” as Mom told Speed, because it was the warmth and art of the people who built the car that triumphed vs. the coldness and machinery or anonymity of the corporate rival.

So Moms and Mormons, this is a movie for you.

THE WACHOWSKIS:
To be completely honest, I don’t think they could have chosen any better directors than the avid fans themselves. Worry as I might about Morpheus leaping out of the sky and telling Speed he is “the one,” (LOL) they did a great job with this piece. They picked a great crew which we owe for the awesome use of colors, production design, costuming, camera angles–the list could go on forever.

They said they weren’t finished with Speed yet and have hinted at a sequel, and as far as I’m concerned, I’ll be there opening weekend.

IN CONCLUSION: Seeing it twice did nothing but make me want to own it on DVD now. *sigh* I hate waiting. I went and picked up the manga and video game and I’ll let you know what I think once I’ve given them ample play time.

Go see this movie! Whether by DVD, regular theater, dollar theater, Netflix–go see it!

Overall Rating: A
Buy it on DVD? Definitely.

Sleep Tight America. These Women Carry Guns.

I grew up in a house that had an extensive VHS collection. One of our favorite impromptu games was “Name that Movie” based on different quotes. We were also quite adept at relating whatever we were talking about to something that happened in a movie or TV show (a quirk I still have to this day). Because our collection was so large (I think at one point we had about 400 VHS tapes) we had quite a few more obscure movies mixed in with the standard popular fair. Feds was on of those obscure movies.

I’ve never met anybody outside my immediate family that has seen Feds. Dee has seen it only because I had shown it to her when we were younger. I dare you to attempt to find it on DVD. As of this writing I know for a fact you can’t because they have not – and most likely never will – release it to DVD. That is, in the grand scheme of things, a tragedy.

No, this movie does not in any way, shape, or form approach the AFI 100 Greatest Films. It is a corny and somewhat cheeseball comedy about two women trying to become FBI agents. It’s predictable and almost certainly inaccurate. So I’m sure you’re asking why this movie not being on DVD is a tragedy. One simple reason: It’s funny.

Rebecca De Mornay is former Marine (remember, there are no ex-Marines) Ellie DeWitt, a physical woman with more than just a little difficulty hitting the books. Mary Gross is Janice Zuckerman, the book smart weakling with no street smarts whatsoever. You can see where this is going: an underdog buddy picture with women.

Ellie DeWitt, though petite, is probably the toughest woman in her FBI class (and I wouldn’t doubt tougher than many of the men). Her roommate Janice Zuckerman is one of the smartest in the class. They really couldn’t be more different from each other, but they hit it off fairly quickly. Thrown into various situations (some, as when they find themselves foiling a bank robbery, are of their own making) they use their complimentary skills to balance the other and come out on top in the end.

Rebecca De Mornay is good as the small but spunky go-getter Ellie DeWitt. Whenever I think of Rebecca De Mornay I always think of the 1987 version of Beauty and the Beast she was in. I think it’s because that’s the first movie I can recall seeing her in (and because I have still not seen The Hand That Rocks the Cradle). It makes an interesting contrast: Well-mannered medieval woman and tough FBI wannabe with no problem kneeing a guy in the nether-regions. You can imagine what watching this movie is like for me.

The mousy Janice Zuckerman is portrayed to perfection by Mary Gross, who is apparently best-known as a cast member of SNL back in the early 1980s (I’m sadly too young to remember those years). In this role she exudes a combination of meekness and fierceness that made Janice the delightful character she was. Some of the best laugh-out-loud moments we get are a direct result of something Janice has done or said.

This movie is not a smart comedy. If you are looking for smart comedy I would recommend you find a copy of Stranger Than Fiction to watch. I’m not saying this as a bad thing, quite the opposite. Sometimes it’s good to just sit down and not have to think too hard about a movie.

One thing I really have to commend this movie on is that it also demonstrates the apparently little known fact that, while it isn’t smart, that doesn’t mean it has to be filled with toilet humor. You hear that, Hollywood? Generic comedies can have no fart jokes and still be funny. It is a possibility!

Verdict: A. Just like in my review of Moving Violations, I have to give this movie top marks for just being funny and not taking itself seriously. It’s a screwball buddy comedy and doesn’t aspire to be anything else. I can’t help but enjoy it when all I want to do is sit down and stop thinking for a while. And hey, it also has Fred Thompson in it. Who can’t get behind that?

“Blood Runs Red on the Highway”… or so they say in traffic school: A review

The 1980s were a decade filled with cheesy horror films, outrageous teen comedies, and the so-called “Brat Pack.” Moving Violations involved none of those. Moving Violations was very much in the vein of Police Academy, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise since those responsible for that screwball comedy were also responsible for this one.

A Crash Course in Traffic School.

The Movie

Several drivers have their cars impounded and licenses revoked in a variety of humorous ways. In order to get their cars and licenses back they must complete traffic school. The catch: The guy teaching the class is a disgruntled cop with a beef against one of the students and a plan to bilk the city of half the proceeds from the sale of the seized cars.

Right off I’ll tell you this isn’t the most intelligent comedy you will ever encounter. The humor lies in the realm of absurdity and, if you’re not in the mood to just sit back and laugh, you may find yourself disliking it altogether. But you shouldn’t, and here’s why.

John Murray, lesser-known brother of Bill Murray, is the lead in this movie and, quite frankly, the casting is inspired. I’d never seen him in anything before, so I didn’t know what to expect from him. In a way he reminds me of Bill, but at the same time he has his own charm. He had many hilarious lines in this movie and the delivery was spot-on. Makes me sad to think we really haven’t seen much of him elsewhere.

I would have to say my favorite character in this movie is Mrs. Houk, played by Nedra Volz. She’s the typical sweet little old lady with a vision problem. Nobody should even be contemplating returning her license. Yet there she is, blissfully unaware of what is going on around her because she just can’t see it. This could very well descend into the lost land of corny cliché but manages to keep itself on the road to hilarity. Mrs. Houk truly steals the show.

Other characters include a puppeteer who’s stage trailer caused a bit of a ruckus at what one can only assume is a mob funeral, a rocket scientist more out there than a rocket to the moon, a man obsessed with blood and horror movies, and a few others that can’t seem to drive between the lines.

The DVD

Features on this disc are slim, but I’m sure that’s in no small part a result of this movie being originally released in 1985 and also a lesser-known film. It has the theatrical trailer, is presented in widescreen format, and actually has both Dolby 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 surround sound. It also comes with “The Official Moving Violations Handbook”, a humorous insert with pictures from the movie and ridiculously obvious rules that are actually printed in driver’s manuals throughout the United States.

Verdict: A. I can’t give this movie anything less. Every single time I watch I find myself laughing at the same jokes over and over again. It never gets old. And for what this movie is – a screwball comedy that doesn’t take itself seriously at all – I’d say it’s at the top of its game.