Big Bot Double Feature: Robot Wars & Crash And Burn

robot wars posterSeveral years back I was in the enviable position of being on Shout Factory’s PR list thanks to working at ToyFare. Because of that, I got a lot of interesting DVD sets, some of which I haven’t even watched yet. The Giant Robot Action Pack featuring Robot Wars and Crash and Burn is one such selection that I decided to finally watch over the weekend and I was surprised at the results.

I’ve actually tried to watch Robot Wars — directed by Albert Band and released in 1993 — a few times, but never really made it through for various reasons. This time, I was set to watch the film and actually succeeded. A kind of sequel to Stuart Gordon’s Robot Jox — which is also getting the Shout Factory treatment — this movie takes place in a future world where one scorpion-like robot carries people from a protected city to one that was abandoned and preserved in 1993. After terrorists take over the robot, it’s up to our brash hero, his co-pilot, a reporter and an archaeologist to find another robot and save the day.

Though the title is pretty misleading — two robots fighting does not a war make — I had a lot of fun with this film. The stop motion on the robots looks better to my eye than the bad CGI that would be used today and the characters, while broad and oftentimes goofy, are charming and fun to watch (it wasn’t until this latest viewing that I realized the reporter is actually Lisa Rinna in an early role).

While this is far from the best giant robot movie I’ve ever seen, I appreciate that everyone involved seemed to be doing their best and trying to create something fun and interesting. Full Moon would sometimes swipe heavily from other projects, but this felt pretty original to me. That might not sound like the most thrilling endorsement, but it went pretty far for a low budget 90s sci-fi action film. It helps that my experience with huge robots doesn’t extend much past loving Transformers as a kid and loving Pacific Rim.

crash and burn posterThe other film on the set — Crash And Burn — is another kinda-sorta-not-really sequel to Robot Jox (they were marketed as such overseas, but share nothing in the way of continuity). This one actually really surprised me because it was such a mix of genres and movies that I love.

It starts off with a guy on a futuristic motorcycle traveling through the desert to visit a factory-turned-TV studio run by a rebellious old man who rails against the corporation that runs everything (and also employs the motorcycle driver). Once there, we meet an eclectic cast of characters that includes Bill Moseley, the old man’s granddaughter played by Dark Skies‘ Megan Ward, blowhard talk show host and a pair of women who…are there for some reason. Soon, an important character is murdered and the search is on to find out what happened. It just so happens to involve killer (human sized) robots and a huge robot outside that doesn’t work (BUT IT WILL!).

So, with this one movie you’ve got the seclusion of the desert with the post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland-type set up mixed with the group-of-stranded-strangers motif (because there’s a radiation storm of some kind) plus the whodunnit mystery (though it’s pretty clear who the killer is if you pay attention to footwear), the someone-isn’t-who-they-seem thing AND THE ROBOTS.

Let’s jump into SPOILER TERRITORY for this graph because I don’t want to ruin an old movie I do actually want you to check out. I tried to paint with broad strokes above, but here’s the deal. If you happen to notice the murderer’s ridiculous boots and then wait about five minutes until you see the cast together once again, you’ll know who the murderer is. Of course, it’s not revealed until AFTER they do a take on the test from The Thing that doesn’t quite go as planned. But once the killer is revealed, it’s a damn delight to watch him go absolutely bonkers, knock off a few randos and then have a big fight at the end that eventually involves the big robot.

All in all, it’s a perfectly crazy movie. While I appreciated Robot Wars for being better than I expected, Crash And Burn actually surprised me by being more aware of what it was and playing with the audience before finally giving them what they wanted in ways they might not have known that they wanted it. I can’t think of another movie I’ve watched recently where I had little-to-no expectations and yet was so pleasantly surprised.

Veronica Mars Is Awesome (2004-2007)

Man, you guys, I love when I wind up really liking a show I didn’t think I could even get through. I had heard good things about Veronica Mars, but thanks to a general dislike of things other people get SUPER excited about and a growing dislike of Kristen Bell, I wasn’t super interested. But, pretty much anything showing up on Netflix Instant gains my attention. One day I was feeling curious and the missus and I were in need of a new show to watch, so we jumped in and wound up devouring most of the series in a pretty short amount of time (we started right before she gave birth to our daughter and wound up finishing the other day).

My dislike of Kristen Bell stems less from a dislike of her as a person and more so the characters she’s played in movies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Couples Retreat and Burlesque (where the young-looking 30 year old actress hilariously played a washed up veteran dancer, a role that should have gone to someone older or more broke looking than Ms. Bell). She was really good at playing assholes to the point where I couldn’t really see myself liking her in a different role (I must have forgotten her in Fanboys). Thankfully, it turns out she’s a pretty damn great actress and the role of Veronica Mars seems absolutely tailor made for her and suits her perfectly.

The general idea behind VM is that Veronica works for her dad’s private investigative firm. The cases she handles, though, usually involve students at her high school and later college asking her for help to figure something out while overarching mysteries play out over the whole season. The first season revolves around Veronica trying to figure out who killed her best friend Lilly (can’t tell you how disappointed I was when I discovered that the beautiful Amanda Seyfried was on the show, but playing a dead girl who spent a good deal of her on-screen time in weirdly lit dream sequences or with gaping head wounds). The second season focuses on the murder of several students who were on a bus that crashed into the ocean. The third actually finished up it’s overarching story early on, but most of it dealt with a serial rapist at the college Veronica (and many of her high school friends) wound up attending.

When I asked my buddy Ben Morse about the series–he was a big fan when it was actually on–he said that the first season was an incredibly tight season of television with a fantastic mystery and then the quality kind of went down from there. I actually really dug all the seasons. Some of the mysteries-of-the-week might not have been quite as interesting as the other, but I thought that overall the writing and acting were of a surprisingly excellent level.

I’d like to give whoever casted this show a hug because he or she did such an amazing job. Bell is perfect as Veronica, starting off hard and jaded thanks to her fall from grace, but eventually getting more comfortable. At the same time, she’s a real ass-kicker who doesn’t let anyone give her shit. That’s a great character and one you don’t see often, especially in such a likable package. You really want to hang out with her, but also stay on her good side. I also loved her dad, Keith Mars, played by Enrico Colantoni. He walks that tightrope between dad who lets his daughter work cases for him and bulldog. He doesn’t look like the most threatening dude in the world, but there are times where he really puts the screws to someone and you can’t help but cheer. Her friends Mac (Tina Majorino), Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Weevil (Francis Capra) are all pretty good at their roles. Her one time boyfriend Duncan (Teddy Dunn) was a bit wooden, but lowered expectations actually lead to some really surprising moments from him. Background character Dick (Ryan Hansen) is this amazing example of a rich kid who truly doesn’t seem to have a care, worry or thought in his head beyond getting laid or drunk…until the end. Most impressive, though, for me was Jason Dohring as Logan. He starts off as this total asshole, but has the biggest progression as far as character goes from the beginning of the series to the end becoming something of a tragic hero by the end. Dohring has a great skill for conveying a lot with a little look or nod and saying nothing. I was most impressed by him and think he should be a pretty big star.

The series also sported some great guest stars like Harry Hamlin as Logan’s dad, Charisma Carpenter as Dick’s step mom and Paul Rudd as a washed up 90s rocker, but they weren’t all gold. Lisa Rinna–who played Hamlin’s wife on the show and does the same in real life too–was absolutely atrocious. She couldn’t even convincingly act like she was listening to people in the same scene as her like a human does. Blech. Luckily, she’s not in the show for very wrong. To give you an idea of how bad she is, I’d rather Paris Hilton had stuck around for more than her two episodes as a high schooler (snicker) than watch Rinna on the screen. But, hey, no show is perfect and Hamlin wound up murdering his role, so it’s an okay tit for tat.

Another problem with the series is that it doesn’t have a real ending. There’s a last episode and lots of hints throughout the final season that might lead towards Veronica’s future with the FBI, but there’s not a real finale, even with a last episode filled with familiar faces. From what I’ve read, the show never really had a solid foundation with it’s network and didn’t really garner a huge number of viewers. As such, they didn’t know if they’d get renewed for a next season. Turns out they didn’t. Had VMars been one season and ended thusly, I think it could be off putting for future viewings, but with a solid three seasons, it’s less of a negative mark for me.

Which brings me to my last point, I really want to watch Veronica Mars again. Not in the near future, but I want to see how it holds up the second time around when I know all the big reveals and whether the hints and clues of the actual killers/criminals are there from the beginning. This is actually a lot different than most mystery-of-the-week type shows for me. I used to watch CSI all the time, but I don’t have a desire to go back and watch that again. Or even a show I like a lot like Bones. The overarching stuff there tends to be relationship-based, which Veronica definitely has, but those long-reaching season-long mysteries add an extra layer to the series that will probably bring me back to it somewhere in the future. Highly recommended!