+Cool, though dated, special effects
+One of the few live-action mech films
-Simple and typical plot
Other films by Stuart Gordon: Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dagon, Dolls
Director: Stuart Gordon
Stars: Gary Graham, Anne-Marie Johnson, Paul Koslo, Michael Alldredge
Genre: Science Fiction, Mecha
This is one of the odder entries in Stuart Gordon's filmography, who is known mostly for directing Lovecraftian horror films like Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Dagon. Robot Jox doesn't have any elder gods, giant tentacle monsters, or decapitation though. Robot Jox is a movie about giant robots, or more accurately mechs, fighting each other.
The plot, in essence, involves a futuristic post-apocalyptic world where, instead of having wars, countries settle their disputes by fighting giant mechs, operated by a single pilot inside, in an arena. The film takes place during a "settlement" over which nation should control Alaska, and focuses on "robot jox" Achilles.
The plot is straight-forward and nothing really special. There's some predictable espionage going on and a love story that never goes anywhere, but those are all just things happening in-between giant robots fighting. At one point the robots go into outer space, which is the one part that shattered my suspension of disbelief. I guess they just really wanted to show some robots in space (which is pretty much always a good idea in my book) and it was pretty cool to see I guess but there was definitely some potential missed when it comes to giant robots fighting in space.
The film seems like it's confused between being a movie for kids or for adults. Some scenes seem like they were written to be very family-friendly, and some as if they wanted to be edgy and mature. This hurts the film severely because it doesn't end up achieving either of them very well. It's not really a movie that very young kids should watch (there's cursing and some light nudity, on top of some violence though most of the violence is comic). At the same time it's a bit cartoony and light-hearted for many adults to enjoy. This demographic conflict is likely due to the creative differences between director Stuart Gordon and co-writer Joe Haldeman (who is a popular sci-fi author who has written classics of the genre like The Forever War). Haldeman wanted a more serious and dramatic science-fiction film with deep characters, whereas Gordon wanted an audience-friendly film with character stereotypes and a plot driven by the special-effects. On the conflict between the two Haldeman said: "I would try to change the science into something reasonable; Stuart would change it back to Saturday morning cartoon stuff. I tried to make believable, reasonable characters, and Stuart would insist on throwing in clichés and caricatures. It was especially annoying because it was a story about soldiers, and I was the only person around who'd ever been one." He makes a fair point.
So the plot is simple and missed a lot of potential. Granted. But it's not awful and it does serve its purpose of driving the story to the next special-effects sequence. Plus, there are some other redeemable qualities to the film, among them being the effects. Let me first take a step back and say that this is one of the first live-action mecha films ever made. Which is a pretty big deal to any anime fan. Mecha had really only existed in animation, and the only other live-action film I can think of that came out before Robot Jox and can be called a "Mech film" would be Gunhed, a cyberpunk Japanese film from the year before. Not surprisingly Robot Jox took much inspiration from the Transformers franchise, specifically the toy line, which, at the time, was as popular in the West as Gundam was in the East. But even in the time since Robot Jox we have seen very few live-action mech films. Robt Jox itself spawned a few official and unofficial sequels throughout the 90s (Robot Wars, Robo Warriors, Crash and Burn) and perhaps the most notable example of a live-action mech film was the all too recent Pacific Rim, which is easily the greatest and most proper live-action mech film to date, but the genre of live-action mech films certainly remains small.
Now the special effects in Robot Jox aren't quite as impressive as those seen in Pacific Rim (the latter has a time, technological, and budget advantage after all), but they're still pretty awesome. The effects are done with stop-motion animation, and while they're not exactly impressive by 90s standards (keep in mind this film was actually made in the late 80s) they are still very interesting effects and actually look pretty convincing for the most part. And who doesn't love the charm of stop-motion?
The two main leads are Gary Graham (Alien Nation, Star Trek) and Anne-Marie Johnson. Both give an alright performance, but in my opinion the real stars here are in the supporting roles. Paul Koslo's performance as the German antagonist is interesting to say the least. It's quite silly in a way, but then so is the rest of the film. It's an enjoyable performance though and it gives a little extra life to the film. Michael Alldredge as Tex also does a charming job. Jeffrey Combs is in here too, a frequent collaborator with Stuart Gordon, but if you blink you'll miss him because he's not in here for long (despite the opening credits saying "starring Jeffrey Combs").
Robot Jox is a nice little cheesy sci-fi flick for fans of the genre and certainly a must see for mecha fans looking for a live-action fix. It has plenty of flaws but at the end of the day remains highly enjoyable. Crash and burn!
Friday, July 19, 2013
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
Director: Norman England
Stars: Yasuyuki Inoue, Akira Takarada, Tsutomu Kitagawa, Haruo Nakajima, Kenpachiro Satsuma
Genre: Movie Documentary
This is the story of people who work extremely hard to create something only to see it be destroyed. They build, with painstaking detail, miniature cities, only to see them crushed by a man in a rubber suit. That's the purpose that their creations serve and when they see their buildings and models get destroyed they surely experience both sadness and happiness all at once. They only hope that the destruction of their models goes well and the director is satisfied and their are no mishaps, or else they'll have to spend days, or even weeks, building them again. This is the story of the crew of special effects makers behind the fantastical Godzilla franchise.
This documentary mostly focuses on the special effects department behind the Godzilla films, all the way from the Showa era to the Heisei and Millennium eras. Focus is especially put on Eiji Tsuburaya, who is best remembered as special effects director on the early Godzilla films and as the creator of the Ultraman series, and on Yasuyuki Inoue, who worked under Tsuburaya on many of the early Godzilla productions and had a career that lasted up until the late 80s (he died a few years after this documentary was made, whereas Tsuburaya died in 1970).
While stop-motion animation dominated monster movies that needed more than make-up in the West, Eiji Tsuburaya, noted for his stunning special effects and realistic modelwork, pioneered a new method of making things look bigger than they are in 1954's Gojira; a method known as suitmation (a kind way of saying man in a rubber suit). To this day suitmation remains a very Japanese method, with few films from other countries utilizing suitmation. So much so that suitmation has become, as this documentary points out, a Japanese tradition and something that is now not only part of their films but their culture as well.
There is a threat to this tradition though: Computer Generated Imagery. Will CGI render suitmation obsolete? Can the tradition of suitmation continue without falling behind in terms of film quality? It's a worry that many Japanese special effects makers have today. There's also the question of what looks better: CGI or suitmation. Is CGI a cheap way of doing something and does it hold any less merit than the detailed models and costume designs or even stop-motion? As one special effects creator in the film suggests, there should be a combination of analog and computer generated effects, each complimenting each other and forming into a unique look that can't be achieved by using either separately.
The film also focuses on the men that wear the suits in the Godzilla films; the men whose faces we never see but movements we can't forget. It's definitely interesting to hear these "suit actors'" stories. They definitely deserve more credit for what they do, as we learn in the documentary their jobs are extremely hard and they risk injury and even death far more often than you may think. They also show us that there is a certain art to playing a giant reptile; all three of the Godzilla costume actors have different monster styles and different methods of playing the big G.
It's directed by Norman England, who subscribers of the Godzilla fanzine G-Fan may be familiar with from some wonderful articles he's written for the mag over the years (writer Steve Ryfle has done work for the magazine as well, and is also the author of the fabulous book on Godzilla Japan's Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of "The Big G".). The production values are pretty low and the film obviously didn't have much of a budget behind it; many of the post-production effects look very silly and amateurish, but the documentary gets the job done when it comes to interesting information and the people it focuses on, and that's what really matters.
This short documentary (just over an hour long) is, in my opinion, required viewing for any Godzilla fan, or even kaiju eiga fans in general. Especially if you're interested in special effects work. It's interesting, insightful, and entertaining. Give it a watch.
Monday, July 15, 2013
+Awesome fight scenes
+Great special effects
+Above average character development
+Mostly good acting
-Some weak plot elements
-In many ways conventional
-Bland main character
Other films by Guillermo del Toro: Pan's Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone, Hellboy
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Stars: Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Hunnam, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman
Genre: Science Fiction, Giant Monster, Mecha
There's many reasons why someone would go see Pacific Rim; whether it be fans of Guillermo del Toro, fans of the cast, etc. But the biggest reason, I think we can all admit, to why we went to watch Pacific Rim, is to see giant mechs fights giant monsters. And if that's the case then I think it's hard to argue that Pacific Rim didn't satisfy.
The story is fairly straight-forward: through a portal in the sea giant monsters from another dimension come out and attack cities, killing millions. Humanity, in response to this new threat, combine their resources and create a new weapon to combat the kaijus: giant mechs, called Jaegers, that require two pilots. Awesome fighting ensues.
The plot isn't of much substance. Last month's Monsters University followed a less conventional plot progression. But that's not quite the appeal of Pacific Rim. The appeal is, mostly, getting to see giant mechs fights giant monsters. Of course when it comes to giant monsters Pacific Rim is following a long line of Japanese kaiju eiga like the Godzilla and Gamera series, and it's also following the recent resurgence of Giant Monster films like Cloverfield, The Host, The Troll Hunter, Super 8, et al. And when it comes to mecha Pacific Rim finds obvious inspiration from anime series like Tetsujin 28, Giant Robo, Mazinger Z, Gundam, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and countless others along with various tokusatsu shows. But one realizes that when it comes to live-action mecha films there is a severe shortage. Sure there were efforts here and there like Gunhed or Robot Jox, and even Michael Bay's Transformers can loosely fit the bill, but there's never really been an all out true mecha film shot in live-action yet in the vain of anime. Which is why when Pacific Rim came along not only Giant Monster fans took notice, but Mecha fans as well. And fans like me can only hope that Pacific Rim, along with next year's Godzilla reboot, ushers in a new generation of mecha and kaiju films.
If anyone had the balls to not only make one of the first big mecha films but to combine it with kaiju eiga as well it surely has to be Guillermo del Toro. He's a director that has shown passion in every project he has worked on and just from listening to him talk about Pacific Rim for a few minutes it would be hard to disagree with him being both knowledgeable and appreciative of the genres he is paying homage to. It's hard to imagine a Godzilla fan or a Gundam fan not being satisfied with this film.
While the concept is genius, the film follows countless plot and character conventions. Our main character here, played by Charlie Hunnam, is so absolutely bland, generic, and even unlikable that it actually hurts the film quite a bit. On top of that you have your standard progression and conflicts and dramatic moments. There's a romantic sub-plot that is hardly present enough to be considered a sub-plot, which is a good thing. It's very brief and it's actually done fairly well in that it's much subtler than many other films with romantic sub-plots. The rival pilots sub-plot, which seemed both unnecessary and randomly resolved. And, perhaps most disappointing, there is your seen-it-a-thousand-times-before Hollywood ending that leaves us with little to think about after the film. The idea of having a single Jaeger require two pilots that have to be perfectly compatible and able to go into each others' minds does add an interesting twist to the story and to the way the characters develop but I felt it missed some potential. But this film has other elements which are strong enough that it can survive with a lackluster plot.
This film is absolutely beautiful. Not necessarily beautiful in, let's say, a Tarkovsky or Kubrick sort of way, or even in a Pan's Labyrinth-The Devil's Backbone del Toro sort of way. It's beautiful in a very epic grandeur sort of way. The special effects, a combination of practical and CGI though the actual monsters and mechs are much more the latter, are some of the best of all-time. At no point does it look like it was generated in a computer. The CGI looks real, it looks detailed, it looks impressive, and, above all, it is blended well with everything else. Giant shiny mechs fighting giant monsters rising out of the ocean has a great stylistic potential and del Toro definitely realized it.
The fight scenes are thrilling. I've been a fan of Giant Monster films my entire life and I can easily say that I never thought I'd get to see something like this. It's stunning. And perhaps the best part of the fight scenes is that del Toro wisely chose to let the camera sit back and show us the fights from a wide shot, rather than a series of dizzying close-ups like so many modern action films utilize. The director allows us to see all the action in frame and only a few times did I feel the close-ups were somewhat convoluted. The editing is definitely great and compliments the action well. Somewhat disappointing, and something that everyone seems to be commenting on, is that pretty much all the fight scenes take place at night while it's raining or deep in the ocean. I do admit it would have been nice to see some more varied time of days during the fights, but here's the thing: giant mechs look extremely cool when they're dark and wet. Just saying.
I do wish that there was some more focus put on other countries' Jaegers. Clearly each country's mech had a unique design and I wish they were explored more. The film mostly focuses on America's Gipsy Danger, and we also get to see a bit of the British Striker Eureka, the Russian Cherno Alpha, the Japanese Coyote Tango, and China's Crimson Typhoon. I just wish there was a bit more focus placed on the latter Jaegers, or even on some of the Jaegers who weren't featured in the film at all. Which brings me to my next point...
Great concept and average plot aside, Pacific Rim hosts a massive and intriguing universe with the potential for nearly limitless additions to its world and lore. Just look at some of the awesome Jaegers that we didn't really get to see in the film: Tacit Ronin, Matador Fury, Shaolin Rogue, Vulcan Specter, and more. All these are official Jaegers that are in the Pacific Rim universe, but just haven't gotten the chance to have their story told yet. Another thing that could easily be elaborated is the alien dimension which the kaijus spawn from. In the film we find out that the monsters are actually being grown and harvested by aliens who desire to take over the world. This motive is a little boring, but the mystery of the alien world and the aliens themselves is very interesting and something that would be great to see in further detail. Pacific Rim certainly has a fascinating universe surrounding it, one that has potential to challenge the depths of something like the Star Wars universe.
And that's not even mentioning the smaller details that were included. Things like showing how there were religious cults formed around the kaijus, or how there were "Kaiju Groupies", or how an entire black market formed because of these monsters. That's superb attention to detail and a fine example of world-building.
The cast was varied, both in ethnicity and in talent. Charlie Hunnam, who plays the bland main character, is honestly, to me, not a very good actor. I haven't seen much of his other work but him and his character were likely the biggest disappointment of the film. Idris Elba steals the show here, both in performance and in character. His character , the commanding officer, has the most depth out of everyone (which makes sense being that he's the most experienced there) and this allows Elba to give emotion, intensity, and passion in his performance. Rinko Kikuchi, a Japanese actress, also does a very good job here. She plays the co-pilot of Hunman's character; her performance is interesting: you can tell just in her demeanor that she has a history to her and perhaps even a bit of trauma. She conveys simultaneous feelings of weakness and strength masterfully. It's nice to see a female with such a large role who is not a blatant sex symbol but is instead intelligent, in control, and easily one of the most psychologically deep characters of the entire film. And she's a non-American actor in a Hollywood movie to boot! Of course I can't forget the enjoyable cameos by Ron Perlman as the unforgettable Hannibal Chau, black marketer of kaiju body parts, or the scientist duo of Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, all whom bring some well crafted comic relief to the film. The chemistry between Day and Gorman is good, and it's nice to see that these supporting "comic-relief" characters actually hold some weight in the plot rather than just being there to be there.
The score by Ramin Djawadi is sufficient. I think he could have taken a bit more inspiration from Akira Ifukube, but then again didn't he pretty much achieve the same thing? After watching a Godzilla movie you'll find yourself chanting the Godzilla Theme, and I can pretty much guarantee when you're through with Pacific Rim you'll find this little number stuck in your head.
I think proof that this film goes beyond typical big budget fare is one key scene. That scene is none other than the flashback scene where a young Mako (Kikuchi) is alone in an alleyway crying while a giant monster lurks around the corner. This scene not only holds psychological merit and tells us a lot about the character and the effect that these Kaiju have had on the populace (similar to how Ishiro Honda used a crying mother gripping her children before being killed in Gojira), but it's also probably the most intense scene in the entire film. And when a scene with a scared little girl crying is the most intense scene in a film filled with giant monsters fighting giant mechs I think it serves as clear indication that there is some good filmmaking at work.
It's a kaiju eiga-mecha epic. Some of the best action ever filmed and one of the best action films, one of the best Giant Monster films, one of the best mecha films, and perhaps even one of the best science fiction films of all-time. This is definitely one you want to see in the theater, preferably in IMAX or RPX, and I can definitely recommend the 3D as well. The type of people who think they'll like this film know who they are, and I'm telling you that this is worth seeing. It's not the most intelligent movie of all time, but it's arguably the most enjoyable.
Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Similar films: Pacific Rim, Robot Jox, Transformers
Director: Jared Cohn
Stars: David Chokachi, Treach, Jackie Moore, Graham Greene
Genre: Mockbuster, Science Fiction, Giant Monster, Mecha
Don't let the title fool you (even though that's what it's meant to do), this is certainly not Pacific Rim. This is Pacific Rim's lackluster distant cousin who no one pays any attention to: it's Atlantic Rim, a mockbuster from The Asylum, the same guys who brought us classic mockbusters like Transmorphers, Snakes on a Train, and Mega Piranha.
The plot is painfully simple: for reasons that are never explained giant monsters rise out of the sea and the U.S. military has to defeat them with their three giant robots piloted by three pilots. There's some guy who wants to nuke New York for some reason, and there's a weird love triangle that never goes anywhere at all. That's really it.
Don't expect good plot here. The Asylum says that on average their films take a couple of months to make. And it shows. Also, the entire script was based off of the Pacific Rim trailer. Yes, just the trailer.
What seemed odd to me was how no one really even seemed to acknowledge that there were giant sea monsters attacking New York City. No one questioned why it was happening or anything, they just sort of excepted it. It's almost as if there were no actual monsters there at all and someone just added them in during post-production to make it seem like those people were actually looking at something. Oh wait, that's exactly what they did.
No practical effects here, folks, not a shred. It's completely CGI, and by low-budget mockbuster standards the effects are actually pretty passable. But by any other standards they're very mediocre. Not awful mind you, just mediocre. It think this film may still have the South Korean Reptilian from 1999 beat when it comes to CGI. Still not saying much.
The effects are definitely sufficient enough to get the intended job done. I could have easily looked passed the crude effects if the monster and robot designs were creative. Unfortunately they weren't. The mechs look very generic; all three are identical aside from different color lights. Even more disappointing is the monster design. There's more than one monster but you may not realize it because they all look exactly the same. I can understand the mechs being identical, and I get that the monsters are from the same species but shouldn't they at least look a little different? for the sake of pleasing the viewer if not for anything else? I mean, this film isn't exactly scientifically accurate; they had the opportunity to go completely over-the-top and make the movie fun but they completely missed it. What were they going for? Realism?
The fight scenes are also only mildly enjoyable. The scene where the shoot a bomb into the monster's mouth while a robot pries its jaws open was pretty great (and also featured a pretty hilarious cameo by the director himself as an fighter pilot). There's not much else worth noting though. Again, the fights weren't awful, just extremely mediocre. There's also a very low level of building destruction which is sure to disappoint many.
The acting is, as per usual for films from The Asylum, some of the worst you'll ever see. Among the main cast are David Chokachi (whom only the most die-hard Baywatch fans might remember) whose performance is terrible. The there's Jackie Moore, who is heaps better than Chokachi when it comes to acting, but still fairly bad. Then we have Treach (rapper from Naughty by Nature) who is arguably the best of the three pilots in terms of acting. Finally there's Graham Greene whom, though not particularly skilled, delivered a deadpan performance that I actually found to be pretty likable. And even though all the acting falls into varying degrees of bad, the actors all seem to be having a fun time and enjoying themselves, which adds a certain light-hearted and self-conscious nature to the film that definitely doesn't hurt matters.
It's not a good movie; it's dull and uninspired, but you probably didn't need me to tell you that. It's enjoyable enough if you want to kill 80 odd minutes though. And, if like me, you're so excited to see Pacific Rim that you can barely contain yourself then this might be a decent way to satisfy some urges. Ryan Lambie from denofgeek.com called it an "unofficial prequel" and "enjoyable primer for Pacific Rim". There's some truth to that, but then again, you can just read the actual official prequel to Pacific Rim, Pacific Rim: Tales from Year Zero, which is much better.