Of Monsters and Men: Pacific Rim and Man of Taichi

Two of the movies I’ve been waiting for in one weekend. Pacific Rim in IMAX 3D (found the 3D dull, dim, and uncomfortable), and Keanu Reeves’s directorial debut, Man of Taichi (thankfully in 2D). Both are films I’d like to go see again.

They are both fascinating in that Pacific Rim is the monster (kaiju) movie that Japan could never make, while Man of Taichi is the martial arts (gongfu) movie that Hong Kong could never make. Both borrow richly from their sources, but add something of their own. In Pacific Rim’s case, wads of special effects money and (unfortunately) Michael Bay’s apocalypse movie template. Andy Baio remarked on Twitter that it’s the worst of Transformers, Armageddon, and Independence Day rolled into one. While that’s a fair assessment of its characterizations and plotting, Del Toro at least executes his material as if he’s seen some anime and knows how to shoot a fight so you can actually see it.

What it really needed was a tight script and team dynamics you could both enjoy and invest in. Instead of Michael Bay’s template, I wish they’d taken Joss Whedon’s. But no, it falls back on faceless national stereotypes and comically bad romance tropes. Rinko Kikuchi may have an Oscar, but I wouldn’t trust whoever oversaw her doe-eyed scenes with bland Charlie Hunnam to direct traffic on a one-way street. Perhaps the Mako Mori character was just meant to be younger than Kikuchi looks, but her uncertainty and shyness were incongruous with having the coolest/most badass hair in the movie.

Pacific Rim's leads looking at each other
Character interaction looks much better in stills than in the film

Man of Taichi takes the best of Enter The Dragon, Bloodsport, and Ong Bak (fighting tournaments with explosive combat scenes), and adds both directorial and visual restraint to a philosophical story layer that HK films sometimes try to do (Ip Man, much of Jet Li’s period work), but almost always too heavy-handedly. For the genre of film that he’s taken on, I think Keanu Reeves has shown himself to be a good director. Not for an actor, or for a Hollywood man, but a good director, period.

Man of Taichi’s star is Tiger Chen, a stuntman that Reeves met during the production of The Matrix. I won’t complain about his performance in the film’s non-fight scenes, because it never gets in the way, which is more than I can say for Pacific Rim’s moments of downtime. When he fights, or is seen struggling with the Star Wars-like light vs. dark side moral dilemma of his pugilism, Chen’s placid face conveys exactly the intensity required. In the final moments of the film’s final fight, he uses it as a blank canvas to great effect — much like Keanu Reeves in his portrayal as Neo in The Matrix when we needed to believe a world lay inside a computer. Some see wooden acting, I choose to see inspired detachment.

Man of Taichi movie poster

Reeves is in this film too, as the main antagonist. My viewing companion was not impressed. Maybe I’m just a fan, but again, I found his typically one-dimensional portrayal to be perfect for the film. It’s so hard to see what’s going on behind the rigid, mechanical demeanor that it produces an oppressive sense of mystery, fear, and apprehension whenever he enters the room opposite the human, naive, in-over-his-head Chen. You simply don’t know what Reeves is supposed to be capable of, or if he’s even meant to be human. I felt the whole thing could go From Dusk Till Dawn at any point and literally reveal Reeves as Satan with Krav Maga training. Through the stark presentation, voice effects, sleek dark suits and occasional black mask, bloodlessly pale face, and perfunctory short utterances, you are invited to read his existence in the whole scenario as a let-it-all-hang-out metaphor for demonic evil. All villains are, but this one does it without overacting in the face!

Where Pacific Rim is happy to show great swathes of the world, and then gleefully destroy it, much of Man of Taichi takes place indoors, with only a few establishing skyline shots of Beijing and Hong Kong. Like Hong Kong, the sparse fight arenas are all concrete surfaces and sharp corners for flesh to get caught on, and you are constantly made aware of the combatants’ mortality. In Pacific Rim, the robot Jaegers are virtually invincible except when fighting the Kaijus, which are only flesh, and bleed. You could toss a Jaeger through a skyscraper made of the same metals, but it only malfunctions when punched in the face by a tentacle. Like in Man of Steel, which got flack for Superman allowing awesome amounts of collateral damage, Pacific Rim’s environment is an inconsequential foam that inhabits the fight space, to be ignored by everyone except the audience, whose job it is to be overwhelmed by enjoyable particle effects.

In both films, there is a man with a knife. One is played to the hilt by Ron Perlman, who talks a lot, wears gold shoes, sunglasses, and flips a flashy butterfly knife around for effect. I can’t remember if he had a cigar in his mouth but there might as well have been. In the other universe, Keanu Reeves pulls the blade out low at the waist, and stabs silently and mercilessly before you know it’s there. It is beautiful and unintentional asymmetry.

I recommend seeing both. Pacific Rim is a dream come true for many of us who love giant robots and schlocky movies with men in rubber monster suits, but by only improving upon visuals, its clearest future is as an HDTV/4K showcase at your local electronics dealer. I think Man of Taichi might become a cult martial arts classic talked about and recommended to friends for years.

Pacific Rim is obviously out now, Man of Taichi is out in Asia and is slated to be in the U.S. sometime in 2013.

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Singapore’s Pacific Rim Jaeger: URBAN REDEVELOPMENT

Pacific Rim has a load of digital marketing bits out online, some created by Qualcomm Snapdragon (official microprocessor of the film’s Jaeger robots) on their Facebook page. One of the best is this Jaeger Designer app, which lets you modify a Unity 3D model with different parts and colors, and then render a poster featuring your own country’s robot defender, which you can also name. I think Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment sits nicely alongside the U.S.’s Gipsy Danger and Japan’s Coyote Tango.

Seeing the movie this Friday night in IMAX 3D and pretty damned excited.

Using VSCO Film with Compact Cameras

Many of us have a soft spot for the look of film photos, whether because of nostalgic associations; or a preference for the grain, faded tones, and color shifts that render the familiar world just a little more interesting. The effort to simulate this in digital photos has lately become conflated with “vintage” effects, where age and strong aberrations are introduced. Those are okay for throwaway shots and fun Instagrammable occasions, but not when a moment deserves quality with a little added character.

As a frequent user of the Visual Supply Co.’s VSCO CAM iPhone app, I knew their VSCO Film preset for professionals using Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture were going to be capable of producing subtle film-like looks, and save a lot of time in post-processing to achieve the kind of results I usually want. But there’s a big difference between a US$0.99 app and buying two sets of presets (a handful of finely-tuned settings and slider positions) costing US$79 each.

It’s a no-brainer for the working photographer who shoots weddings and events; VSCO Film presets are the result of people with more time than you, slaving away to find the perfect combinations of color, lighting, and grain to get the most out of photos. You pay to save yourself that Herculean effort, and make it back almost immediately.

The amateur photographer (me) has less incentive to part with their money, apart from curiosity and desire. I don’t even own a DSLR camera. The VSCO presets are very much designed to be used on well-exposed, high quality RAW photos from a DSLR. On holidays, I mostly shoot with high-end compacts like the Ricoh GR Digital, which are capable of saving RAW files, but I’m just as likely to use Point & Shoots or smartphones with small sensors, depending on the situation. Up to this moment, I’ve always chosen to save JPEGs over RAW for the convenience.

I tried to find articles online about whether or not it was worth buying VSCO Film for use on photos from regular compact cameras, but found little in the way of reassurance. The company’s official line was that they would “work”, but an SLR + RAW files was recommended. Being presets, they could not be expected to perform consistently across sources of widely varying quality.

It doesn’t help that the company has a No Refunds policy, and does not make available any demo files for curious customers to judge the results with. Being that they are geared towards professional users using gear I don’t have, I understand my need to see how the presets work with consumer cameras is a unique and unsupported one.

If you’re a Lightroom 4 or Adobe Camera RAW user, there’s a preset in the including Toolkit called “JPEG Contrast Fixer”, which corrects some of the issues you will encounter when processing a JPEG from a DSLR or camera incapable of saving RAW files. As an Aperture 3 user, that option was not available.

Since there’s a sale now on to celebrate the release of VSCO Film 02 for Aperture, which amounts to savings of 25% if you buy both packs, I decided last night to take the plunge and see what would happen. I’ve only had a couple of hours or so to test it out on some old vacation photos, but the results are encouraging.

The bottom line: If you’re not concerned with absolute emulation of the film stocks the presets are designed around — and online sentiment I’ve come across seems to be that their accuracy is subjective anyway — and you merely want to achieve a look reminiscent of film photography, you’ll be perfectly pleased using VSCO Film with consumer compact digital cameras.

The shots below were taken with a Ricoh CX6 and GRD3, and processed only within Aperture using VSCO Film 01 & 02. The trick is usually to boost exposure between 0.3 to 1.0 whilst recovering highlights, and then apply the presets you want. This approximates the default brightness I see in many DSLR photos, while expanding the dynamic range a little. Most compacts I’ve used tend to underexpose by default, with the exception of many a Sony Cybershot.

Even with the knowledge that these can work well for those with lower-end cameras, the usual per-pack price of US$79 (and US$119 for the Lightroom versions) is still going to be a significant roadblock for the casual photographer. Nevercenter’s Camerabag 2 for the desktop is just US$20 and capable of yielding great results too. I just wanted something that integrated with Aperture (non-destructive editing), wasn’t a plugin or app I had to leave the environment to use, and was more subtle. Camerabag’s baked-in presets are decidedly closer to “vintage”, but you are free to tone them down and save your own favorites.

Processed: Ginza by night

Original: Ginza by night

➟ Satoshi Kon’s last words

One of my all-time favorite film directors passed away two days ago at the age of 46. It didn’t matter that he worked with animation, but his original ideas were a perfect fit for the medium. Millennium Actress is easily in my top ten list, right alongside the Hitchcocks, Kurosawas, and Allens.

This was his farewell to the world.

Link

➟ Studio Ghibli’s Ni no Kuni for PS3

Studio Ghibli and Level-5 are making a videogame for the DS, and it’s just been announced that a version for the PS3 will also be released; most likely a different story in the same world rather than a straight port. The screenshot above is purportedly the actual game being rendered by a 2D/3D animation engine. Compare it to a still from an actual animated cutscene here. They are almost indistinguishable in terms of art quality. That a console game controlled in real-time by a player can look (at least when paused) just like a real Studio Ghibli movie is utterly amazing.

Link [Joystiq.com]

Film Notes: Bullitt (1968)

Since I don’t have a lot to blog about these days, I think I’m going to write short bits about movies I’ve seen, right after seeing them. Who this could possibly appeal to remains to be seen. I’ve also been feeling overloaded with work lately, and am making the effort to declare some break time on a daily basis, because otherwise my entire day is split between writing and being unable to write. There are no other states between them that I care to consider.

Hopefully I’ll manage a film every day or two.

Tonight I saw Bullitt on DVD (haven’t gotten to the special features yet). This was actually the first time I’ve seen Steve McQueen in a movie, ever. He’s pretty bad-ass and reminds me of Daniel Craig a little, and Robert Redford. The bad guy at the end looks like Clive Owen. They should do a remake… actually, no. It’s got plot holes, yeah, but the rest is a very well-constructed movie that I don’t think modern audiences would pay money to watch for two hours, which is a shame.

I should explain that the archetypical ‘modern viewer’ in my mind is an American teenager with a short attention span, bad grades, and who likes to plays Halo. That’s really the target audience for 99% of the movies that I see coming out anyway. What other reason could there be for the dumbing down of everything? I can’t remember the last time I saw a thriller that made the viewer work to distill its elements; to piece together a chronologically dissected heap of stimuli, or guess at characters’ meanings and motivations before they are formally introduced (or not at all). It’s sad because I go to the theatres most days now only to become irritated at the couple beside me, one member of which will inevitably ask the other at some point, “who is that?”, or “what just happened?” as if they were watching two different movies. And mind you, these aren’t Hitchcockian movies, or foreign imports where thick accents might have caused a crucial line to be missed – I’m really talking about shit like Wanted, or Tokyo Fucking Drift.

Bullitt is two hours long and nowhere as kinetic as I’d expected, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise. (However) there’s a car chase in the middle that I hear is the main reason for its cult status: it is one of the earliest examples of modern chase sequence structure, and has some phenomenal stunt driving down the hilly slopes of San Francisco. Very impressive work. But I think the movie’s strongest point is the way it frames and presents its dialogue. Some incidental scenes have characters speaking words that feel like they’re exchanged for purely practical purposes in the film’s world, and not for the benefit of viewers. There is no benefit for us at all, except immersion. I think I’ve just been watching too many bad movies lately, where every line is used for some ham-fisted exposition or foreshadowing of later drama.

And yet there are long stretches where nothing is said, like in the chase scene. McQueen does not quietly curse to himself, and the two antagonists in the other car barely exchange looks, let alone words. It’s a fantastic change. At times the camera just settles on Lieutenant Bullitt (that’s the name of McQueen’s cop), squarely on his face from the shoulders up as his eyes search the room we cannot see, or ponders his next move. It’s far more effective than what M. Night Shymalan has done recently with The Happening, which tries a similar gimmick with Mark Wahlberg as he supposedly struggles to reconcile his science-rooted atheism with growing evidence of intelligent design. The necessary charisma is lacking.