"Speed Racer" is one for the record books

by Eric Melin on May 9, 2008

in Print Reviews

Remember when you were a kid and you discovered the joys of coloring books? If you were like me, you just wanted to fill in the spaces between those rigid black and white lines. But there was always that showoff whiz kid who used every one of those 64 Crayons and never colored even a bit over the borders. Andy and Larry Wachowski were probably those kids. That unique combination of flashiness and rigidity is at the artificial heart of one larger-than-life movie that explodes right off the screen this weekend in theaters.

speed racer movie car chaseBased on a freewheeling 1960s Japanese cartoon that revolves around a family of picket-fence motor sport fanatics, “Speed Racer” is obviously built with young kids in mind, but cinema-savvy adults may have a better chance appreciating the technological wizardry that’s on display in this eye-popping orgasm of color and motion. Then again, kids will probably respond to the movie’s apple-pie America mentality and, although the directors do their best to disguise it with manic time-jumping, the plot is about as simple as it gets.

Emile Hirsch plays Speed Racer, a young race car driver who wants to make his family proud by restoring his disgraced brother’s name. How to do that? Racing, of course. Mom and Pops Racer (John Goodman and Susan Sarandon) head this single-minded extended family, which also includes a loyal mechanic (Kick Gurry), chaste girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), and a younger brother (Paulie Litt) with a Jersey accent whose constant companion is a monkey.

emile hirsch speed racerThe world of “Speed Racer” is a place where power-hungry corporate trolls wear purple suits and gold chains and a pure white glass of milk is the celebratory drink in the winner’s circle. Since subtlety is nowhere to be found, the actors are merely there to serve the Racer universe. Ricci and Goodman are especially up to the task. With her big, unblinking doe eyes and his firm, yet Brady-like delivery, they actually seem like they stepped right out of a cartoon…

which is exactly what the Wachowskis, directing their first film since “The Matrix” trilogy, are going for. Essentially, they’re just trading one form of animation for another. Gone is the crude, old-fashioned animation of the ‘60s. Jittery movements, badly-dubbed dialogue, and stopped frames have been replaced by—no pun intended—speed, and lots of it. “Speed Racer,” shot almost entirely on a greenscreen set with brightly colored costumes and props and computer-generated backgrounds, is constantly moving.

The tug-of-war between inventive visual storytelling and narrative cohesion is apparent from the very first sequence, a protracted flash-back-and-forth car chase that makes it difficult to tell how or where one plotline ends and the next one begins. Like anime (the current cultural juggernaut that the original cartoon influenced), however, it just takes awhile to adjust to the film’s herky-jerky rhythms and movements. There is also something freeing about watching this movie because it establishes early on that it’s not playing by certain cinematic rules.

christina ricci speed racerCriticize it all you want for pandering to the fast-paced style of editing that modern audiences are used to, but “Speed Racer” is way ahead of you. It doesn’t play to our expectations; it leaves them in the dust. The Wachowski brothers push the boundaries of film language and storytelling through seemingly impossible camera angles, constantly moving split-screen transitions, and split-second close-ups and zoom outs.

One rule the film would have been better off adhering too, however, is that any overwhelming sensory experience will have more effect the shorter it is. He may be lightning fast on the track and be restricted by none of the laws of physics, but Speed Racer’s movie clocks in at about two hours and nine minutes. There is so little downtime, too, that a couple lower-energy scenes actually seem like endings.

It may not be an absorbing emotional experience as much as it is an unrelenting spectacle, but “Speed Racer” is overflowing with enough energy to make you ‘feel’ like you’ve really seen something. If you believe, like Speed and his family do, that a car is a “living, breathing” thing, then the movie as a whole may live for you as well. Whether you are put off by the constant assault on the senses is anyone’s guess. If you’re like me, though, you’ll be content just to enjoy a ride unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. And in times when everything has old is new again, pulling off that feat is a wonder in itself.

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Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

1 ChrisKnudsen May 9, 2008 at 6:56 pm

So Emile Hersche doesn’t die in Alaska in this one? That is too bad.

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2 ChrisKnudsen May 9, 2008 at 6:56 pm

So Emile Hersche doesn’t die in Alaska in this one? That is too bad.

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3 RCM May 12, 2008 at 6:00 pm

I’m so glad that you had the courage to call “Speed Racer” good despite it receiving a thorough critical bashing from most publications. Yes, it’s story and message are simple, (it’s a kids movie) but no more overly simple then just about all of the recent Pixar cartoon releases. The difference here is the Wachowski bros. let free with their creative sides and added some mind blowing stylization’s, instead of opting for serene, sophisticated, and increasingly boring, Pixar stuff.

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4 RCM May 12, 2008 at 6:00 pm

I’m so glad that you had the courage to call “Speed Racer” good despite it receiving a thorough critical bashing from most publications. Yes, it’s story and message are simple, (it’s a kids movie) but no more overly simple then just about all of the recent Pixar cartoon releases. The difference here is the Wachowski bros. let free with their creative sides and added some mind blowing stylization’s, instead of opting for serene, sophisticated, and increasingly boring, Pixar stuff.

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5 ChrisKnudsen May 12, 2008 at 10:33 pm

Wow, RCM must stand for retarded cat man for only retarded cat men think Pixar movies are bad.

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6 ChrisKnudsen May 12, 2008 at 10:33 pm

Wow, RCM must stand for retarded cat man for only retarded cat men think Pixar movies are bad.

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7 Eric Melin May 12, 2008 at 11:10 pm

Hey Knudsen, simmer down, buddy. RCM is just pointing out a little critical hypocrisy. Pixar doesn’t ever get taken to task for simple themes, but this film is being crucified for it. I agree with him–there’s nothing inherently wrong with a simple family-as-one theme, what makes a simple story interesting is the way you tell it. Besides being stylistically daring, this one worked for me. It just didn’t go about it the same way everybody else does.

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8 Eric Melin May 12, 2008 at 11:10 pm

Hey Knudsen, simmer down, buddy. RCM is just pointing out a little critical hypocrisy. Pixar doesn’t ever get taken to task for simple themes, but this film is being crucified for it. I agree with him–there’s nothing inherently wrong with a simple family-as-one theme, what makes a simple story interesting is the way you tell it. Besides being stylistically daring, this one worked for me. It just didn’t go about it the same way everybody else does.

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9 RCM May 13, 2008 at 3:45 am

I don’t think Pixar films are bad, they just aren’t impressing me visually anymore. The animation behind them is obviously beautiful, but I feel like they’ve lost some of their creative rigger, and it wouldn’t hurt to change it up some stylistically. While watching “Speed Racer” I couldn’t stop thinking of the Pixar movie “Cars” (which is why I made the analogy in the first place). Each of these films are as equally childish in nature, as they are beautiful in the CGI movie making medium, but I had a lot more fun with “Speed Racer”, it just felt different and interesting, while “Cars” felt like more of the same. Though granted, Pixar films are still funny (just not as funny as they use to be), and “Speed Racer” is not. One could also say that Pixar movies have slightly more 3 dimensional characters (silly 3D pun intended), and Racer’s characters are kinda flat (again, pun, stupid, I know). Still, I enjoyed Racer more, the Pixars are starting to bleed together in my mind, but “Speed Racer” is going to stand out with great originality.

“Retarded cat man”, hmm, I like it. I might just change that to my screen name.

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10 RCM May 13, 2008 at 3:45 am

I don’t think Pixar films are bad, they just aren’t impressing me visually anymore. The animation behind them is obviously beautiful, but I feel like they’ve lost some of their creative rigger, and it wouldn’t hurt to change it up some stylistically. While watching “Speed Racer” I couldn’t stop thinking of the Pixar movie “Cars” (which is why I made the analogy in the first place). Each of these films are as equally childish in nature, as they are beautiful in the CGI movie making medium, but I had a lot more fun with “Speed Racer”, it just felt different and interesting, while “Cars” felt like more of the same. Though granted, Pixar films are still funny (just not as funny as they use to be), and “Speed Racer” is not. One could also say that Pixar movies have slightly more 3 dimensional characters (silly 3D pun intended), and Racer’s characters are kinda flat (again, pun, stupid, I know). Still, I enjoyed Racer more, the Pixars are starting to bleed together in my mind, but “Speed Racer” is going to stand out with great originality.

“Retarded cat man”, hmm, I like it. I might just change that to my screen name.

Reply

11 ChrisKnudsen May 13, 2008 at 10:03 am

Yeah, Cars does receive the most critism out of all the Pixar movies and I still think it is a great movie despite it being Doc Hollywood with cars (yeah it does get that comparison quite a lot) but it is probably my least favorite out of the Pixar movies. Ratatouille is however my favorite Pixar movie by far where I went and saw it in theaters 4 times and more than likely was my favorite movie of last year and might beat out Babe as my all time favorite family film.

I will try and see Speed Racer in theaters for I generally agree with Mr. Eric Melin’s reviews hence why I chose Scene-Stealers as my premiere selection of film critism.

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12 ChrisKnudsen May 13, 2008 at 10:03 am

Yeah, Cars does receive the most critism out of all the Pixar movies and I still think it is a great movie despite it being Doc Hollywood with cars (yeah it does get that comparison quite a lot) but it is probably my least favorite out of the Pixar movies. Ratatouille is however my favorite Pixar movie by far where I went and saw it in theaters 4 times and more than likely was my favorite movie of last year and might beat out Babe as my all time favorite family film.

I will try and see Speed Racer in theaters for I generally agree with Mr. Eric Melin’s reviews hence why I chose Scene-Stealers as my premiere selection of film critism.

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13 RCM May 13, 2008 at 4:43 pm

Wow, 4 times, that’s awesome! I can’t remember the last movie I loved a movie enough to go see it 4 times in theater. I usually max out at two for my favorites these days.

“Ratatouille” is certainly a fine movie (it did receive a screenplay nomination after all). I just got all bent out of shape when just about every review for “Speed Racer” I read smashed the movie for it’s simple story. I was hoping that more critics would be like Mr. Melin, and have some appreciation for the creative visuals it displayed. I don’t know why I felt it necessary to smash Pixar, except, I guess they aren’t charming me quit is much as they use too. Still, “Wall-E” looks like it has great potential, so I’m looking forward to that. To be honest, many element of “Speed Racer” aren’t as good as most Pixar films, I was just completely smitten with the animation.

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14 RCM May 13, 2008 at 4:43 pm

Wow, 4 times, that’s awesome! I can’t remember the last movie I loved a movie enough to go see it 4 times in theater. I usually max out at two for my favorites these days.

“Ratatouille” is certainly a fine movie (it did receive a screenplay nomination after all). I just got all bent out of shape when just about every review for “Speed Racer” I read smashed the movie for it’s simple story. I was hoping that more critics would be like Mr. Melin, and have some appreciation for the creative visuals it displayed. I don’t know why I felt it necessary to smash Pixar, except, I guess they aren’t charming me quit is much as they use too. Still, “Wall-E” looks like it has great potential, so I’m looking forward to that. To be honest, many element of “Speed Racer” aren’t as good as most Pixar films, I was just completely smitten with the animation.

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15 WeaverBard May 19, 2008 at 1:30 am

I love this film – I must admit that at first glance of the previews before Speed Racer hit the theaters I felt a sinking stone in my belly – the assualt of color as I saw the city skyline had me wondering “Am I watching the movie Robots?” I have deeply fond memories of the original cartoon and wondered could this movie measure up. Two-thirds of the movie went by with my grumpiness intact, and then I finally got it. The Wachowski Bros. didn’t care if I liked this film – they were on a mission to re-invent the story telling process – to awaken my senses in a daringly inventive new way – to not do it like the did it before and had the guts to boldly create a brilliant vision. Exaggeration seemed to be the name of the game here – for a character such as Speed Racer could not exist in a world like ours, but only an exaggerated one. And to my utter surprise, in the last leg of the last race of the film, as Speed finds he’s “reason” for racing – I wept – tears spontaneously streamed down my cheeks (I’m a 41 year old man) – there was a magnificence, passion and beauty in watching Speed overcome his obstacles and declare himself – fully self expressed in the face of ridiculous odds – in a blur of color and speed and victory. I found myself riding in the car with him – looking into my life where I have given up and where I can still declare myself – and finish my own race in a blaze of light and pure expression. The Wachowski’s are champions of the human spirit and their films boldly declare (in metaphor) what is possible for each of us – if we choose it. What a world we could delight in if we all “chose” to be as bold. BRAVO!

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16 WeaverBard May 19, 2008 at 1:30 am

I love this film – I must admit that at first glance of the previews before Speed Racer hit the theaters I felt a sinking stone in my belly – the assualt of color as I saw the city skyline had me wondering “Am I watching the movie Robots?” I have deeply fond memories of the original cartoon and wondered could this movie measure up. Two-thirds of the movie went by with my grumpiness intact, and then I finally got it. The Wachowski Bros. didn’t care if I liked this film – they were on a mission to re-invent the story telling process – to awaken my senses in a daringly inventive new way – to not do it like the did it before and had the guts to boldly create a brilliant vision. Exaggeration seemed to be the name of the game here – for a character such as Speed Racer could not exist in a world like ours, but only an exaggerated one. And to my utter surprise, in the last leg of the last race of the film, as Speed finds he’s “reason” for racing – I wept – tears spontaneously streamed down my cheeks (I’m a 41 year old man) – there was a magnificence, passion and beauty in watching Speed overcome his obstacles and declare himself – fully self expressed in the face of ridiculous odds – in a blur of color and speed and victory. I found myself riding in the car with him – looking into my life where I have given up and where I can still declare myself – and finish my own race in a blaze of light and pure expression. The Wachowski’s are champions of the human spirit and their films boldly declare (in metaphor) what is possible for each of us – if we choose it. What a world we could delight in if we all “chose” to be as bold. BRAVO!

Reply

17 Eric Melin May 19, 2008 at 1:56 am

There was a certain influx of emotion in me as well, but I think it was more due to the sheer playfulness of the film than a last-minute revelation. Although it wavered, the smile didn’t leave my face for too long during this unique adventure. It may not be perfect but bold is the perfect word to describe it. Simulating anime is one thing, but moving forward with that as your staring point is daring, and “Speed Racer” is nothing if not daring.

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18 Eric Melin May 19, 2008 at 1:56 am

There was a certain influx of emotion in me as well, but I think it was more due to the sheer playfulness of the film than a last-minute revelation. Although it wavered, the smile didn’t leave my face for too long during this unique adventure. It may not be perfect but bold is the perfect word to describe it. Simulating anime is one thing, but moving forward with that as your staring point is daring, and “Speed Racer” is nothing if not daring.

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19 skunky May 21, 2008 at 12:05 am

I entirely agree with the last two comments, I myself was about to weep at the magnificence of the last leg of the last race (as you so eloquently put it). It was without doubt a grandeur achievement.

I believe that this movie is very much a work of art; an unrelenting expedition into the human psyche and the foundations of the soul. Free from the tyranny of modern cinematic expectations and low-tier overhyped storytelling.

This film is without a doubt whatsoever one of the most breathtaking and unique films that I’ve ever seen.

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20 skunky May 21, 2008 at 12:05 am

I entirely agree with the last two comments, I myself was about to weep at the magnificence of the last leg of the last race (as you so eloquently put it). It was without doubt a grandeur achievement.

I believe that this movie is very much a work of art; an unrelenting expedition into the human psyche and the foundations of the soul. Free from the tyranny of modern cinematic expectations and low-tier overhyped storytelling.

This film is without a doubt whatsoever one of the most breathtaking and unique films that I’ve ever seen.

Reply

21 RacerChex May 25, 2008 at 1:31 am

I have to admit, I saw Speed Racer and pretty much disliked it for the first half of the movie. Then around the second half I got it. I have recently rewatched Speed Racer on DVD. There is nothing there in that old series for an adult to return to other than memories. And the movie does kind of make you a bit weepy eyed in that last moment of the race. Because you get the point… sometimes there is no big answer… no God ordained purpose to all of this… other than how you’ve run the “race” (your life) and how you feel about yourself at the end of it. You are the only one who can interpret that. My interpretation on Speed Racer? It was great. Gonna see it again!

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22 RacerChex May 25, 2008 at 1:31 am

I have to admit, I saw Speed Racer and pretty much disliked it for the first half of the movie. Then around the second half I got it. I have recently rewatched Speed Racer on DVD. There is nothing there in that old series for an adult to return to other than memories. And the movie does kind of make you a bit weepy eyed in that last moment of the race. Because you get the point… sometimes there is no big answer… no God ordained purpose to all of this… other than how you’ve run the “race” (your life) and how you feel about yourself at the end of it. You are the only one who can interpret that. My interpretation on Speed Racer? It was great. Gonna see it again!

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23 Cheesydog May 28, 2008 at 11:20 pm

Thanks for such a great review! I honestly cannot remember the last time I have been so angry at the sheep-like, drone mentality absolute drivel of the average movie critics response to a movie.
I had zero expectations coming into this movie, but like with any movie I watched it with an open mind. I 100 percent loved it. I was actually shocked at how much I was enjoying myself, and I think at one point during the climatic ending my mouth was hanging open and I stopped breathing, I was so riveted by the action, and yes my eyes did get a bit misty, which I found unbelievable. This movie is wonderful in so many ways, it does as you say make you feel like a kid again. The storyline is so very simple (how on earth do critics call it convoluted?) yet it draws you in nonetheless with compelling and characters completely invested in their roles. This type if movie has never been seen before, it breaks so much visual ground, and is just so easy to get lost in. It takes about 5-10 minutes to acclimatise yourself to the visual style but one you do, you believe in it, or I did anyway. Anyway I needed to get that off my chest.

I’m so sick of hearing how fantastic Iron Man is and how much better it is than Speed Racer. I watched it and it is ok. Just ok. It is not a Batman Begins, it is not a Spiderman 2. In fact I found it completely predictable and did not show me anything new, or make me feel anything different. Downey and Jeff Bridges raise it to a good enough level to enjoy but it is not deserving of the praise heaped upon it.

Speed averaging 35% is just tragically unfair to what the Wachowski’s have created. perhaps they were just too far ahead of the time.

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24 Cheesydog May 28, 2008 at 11:20 pm

Thanks for such a great review! I honestly cannot remember the last time I have been so angry at the sheep-like, drone mentality absolute drivel of the average movie critics response to a movie.
I had zero expectations coming into this movie, but like with any movie I watched it with an open mind. I 100 percent loved it. I was actually shocked at how much I was enjoying myself, and I think at one point during the climatic ending my mouth was hanging open and I stopped breathing, I was so riveted by the action, and yes my eyes did get a bit misty, which I found unbelievable. This movie is wonderful in so many ways, it does as you say make you feel like a kid again. The storyline is so very simple (how on earth do critics call it convoluted?) yet it draws you in nonetheless with compelling and characters completely invested in their roles. This type if movie has never been seen before, it breaks so much visual ground, and is just so easy to get lost in. It takes about 5-10 minutes to acclimatise yourself to the visual style but one you do, you believe in it, or I did anyway. Anyway I needed to get that off my chest.

I’m so sick of hearing how fantastic Iron Man is and how much better it is than Speed Racer. I watched it and it is ok. Just ok. It is not a Batman Begins, it is not a Spiderman 2. In fact I found it completely predictable and did not show me anything new, or make me feel anything different. Downey and Jeff Bridges raise it to a good enough level to enjoy but it is not deserving of the praise heaped upon it.

Speed averaging 35% is just tragically unfair to what the Wachowski’s have created. perhaps they were just too far ahead of the time.

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25 ChrisKnudsen August 12, 2008 at 4:19 pm

Finally caught this in the dollar theaters. Holy man dude. This was a lot of fun and holy crap, style oozed everywhere. Thanks for the good review. I am glad that Emile Hersch didn’t die in Alaska in this one.

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26 ChrisKnudsen August 12, 2008 at 4:19 pm

Finally caught this in the dollar theaters. Holy man dude. This was a lot of fun and holy crap, style oozed everywhere. Thanks for the good review. I am glad that Emile Hersch didn’t die in Alaska in this one.

Reply

27 Forsaken_Angel September 25, 2008 at 11:31 pm

Well, when I first saw the trailer I said to myself “This movie is going to be a piece of crap, but hey, the races seem kind of cool”. However no one wanted to go with me to the theater to watch it. So I watched it on one of those websites and… WOW!! The next day I HAD to see it on the big screen! So I went alone and enjoyed every damn second of it!

I consider this movie a MASTERPIECE. Yes the plot was simple but very well told. The visuals… BEAUTYFULL!! This movie REALLY touched me. I haven’t trully feel any excitement in a movie in more than 10 years and this movie keep me silently screaming in my mind “GO, SPEED! GO!!”

This review, and the last 6 comments pretty much express what I feel. OOOHH! that last scene (the Grand Prix)BEAUTYFULL!!! And yes, tears came from my eyes as well!!

Too bad this movie was crucified by many close minded critics that can’t see beyond the looking glass. Trully, the Wachowsky Brothers are ahead of their time in the movie making industry.

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28 Forsaken_Angel September 25, 2008 at 11:31 pm

Well, when I first saw the trailer I said to myself “This movie is going to be a piece of crap, but hey, the races seem kind of cool”. However no one wanted to go with me to the theater to watch it. So I watched it on one of those websites and… WOW!! The next day I HAD to see it on the big screen! So I went alone and enjoyed every damn second of it!

I consider this movie a MASTERPIECE. Yes the plot was simple but very well told. The visuals… BEAUTYFULL!! This movie REALLY touched me. I haven’t trully feel any excitement in a movie in more than 10 years and this movie keep me silently screaming in my mind “GO, SPEED! GO!!”

This review, and the last 6 comments pretty much express what I feel. OOOHH! that last scene (the Grand Prix)BEAUTYFULL!!! And yes, tears came from my eyes as well!!

Too bad this movie was crucified by many close minded critics that can’t see beyond the looking glass. Trully, the Wachowsky Brothers are ahead of their time in the movie making industry.

Reply

29 Forsaken_Angel September 25, 2008 at 11:35 pm

Oh, by the way, i saw it 2 times in the theater and today I’m a proud owner on a Blu-Ray copy of it, even if i don’t own a Blu-Ray player (the digital copy works for me in the meantime), and I don’t care what others think of me for loving this movie!!

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30 Forsaken_Angel September 25, 2008 at 11:35 pm

Oh, by the way, i saw it 2 times in the theater and today I’m a proud owner on a Blu-Ray copy of it, even if i don’t own a Blu-Ray player (the digital copy works for me in the meantime), and I don’t care what others think of me for loving this movie!!

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31 Xavier May 21, 2009 at 6:38 am

how the hell was this not even nominated for an academy award for visual effects, screw nominated it should have flat out won.

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32 Xavier May 21, 2009 at 6:38 am

how the hell was this not even nominated for an academy award for visual effects, screw nominated it should have flat out won.

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33 Eric Melin May 21, 2009 at 7:17 am

Xavier- Agreed.
Forsaken_Angel- Having a Blu-ray screening with friends at my house Sat. night. Can’t wait to see it the way it was intended!

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34 Eric Melin May 21, 2009 at 7:17 am

Xavier- Agreed.
Forsaken_Angel- Having a Blu-ray screening with friends at my house Sat. night. Can’t wait to see it the way it was intended!

Reply

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