Chuck (2017)


Liev Schreiber gets ready to take on the role of Chuck Wepner.

(2017) Sports Biography (IFC) Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Michael Rapaport, Jim Gaffigan, Pooch Hall, Jason Jones, Morgan Spector, Sadie Sink, Zina Wilde, Catherine Corcoran, Wass Stevens, Angela Marie Ray, Liz Celeste, Ivan Martin, Joe Starr, Jen Ponton, William Hill, Mark Borkowski, Marell Miniutti, Leslie Lyles, Megan Sikora. Directed by Phillippe Falardeau

 

America loves an underdog and perhaps there’s been no bigger underdog in U.S. boxing history than Chuck Wepner. A journeyman heavyweight in the 1970s based in Bayonne, New Jersey, he’d had a decent enough career, winning the Jersey State Heavyweight Championship but had never really fought any of the big dogs of the era – until 1975.

Wepner (Schreiber) has a certain amount of local fame as he is treated like he’d won the heavyweight championship of the world. Of course, admiration doesn’t put food on the table so he runs a liquor route to make ends meet. His wife Phyliss (Moss) endures the boxing in which he takes terrible beatings but Chuck tends to have a wandering eye – and the other body parts unfortunately wander as well. The marriage is most definitely sailing through rough waters and while Chuck is devoted to his daughter Kimberly (Sink) his ego tends to get in the way of making smart choices.

After Ali (Hall) wins the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman, his manager Don King invites Wepner to fight for the championship against Ali, then just a little past his prime. The match is expected to be a joke but Wepner gives Ali everything he can handle, coming just 18 seconds away from going the distance until Ali, angered that Wepner had knocked him down, pummeled him into a technical knockout. Still, Wepner became a folk hero.

A young out-of-work actor named Sylvester Stallone (Spector) sees the fight and is inspired to write a character based on Wepner – Stallone names him Rocky Balboa. The rest is history and although Wepner has nothing to do with the movie itself, he feels a sense of accomplishment when the movie wins multiple Oscars as if he had been responsible. He starts billing himself as “The Real Rocky.”

But all the accolades and adulation get Chuck’s ego spiraling out of control and he spends the Disco Decade in debauchery, doing drugs, drinking heavily and partying with women. Having had enough, Phyliss leaves him for good and Chuck sinks into a deep depression fueled by drugs and alcohol. Standing by him is his estranged brother John (Rapaport), his best friend (Gaffigan), his longtime manager (Perlman) and a barmaid named Linda (Watts) who is unimpressed with Chuck’s fame. Will it be enough to get him back on the straight and narrow?

Because the stories are so similar, the first part of the film comes off as kind of a Rocky Lite which may or may not be what the filmmakers intended. Then, in a sense, it all goes off the rails as Wepner gets lost in the trappings of fame, 70s style – discos, tons of drugs, tons of sex. It turns into a cautionary tale at that point which is diametrically different to the underdog story that it began as.

One of the things that really caught my attention is that Falardeau accomplishes either digitally or by using film stock the look of era movies which helps keep you right in the 70s. The trappings of the time – the truly obnoxious hair, the boxy cars, the outlandish clothes and the pulse of disco – further set the tone.

Schreiber of late has gotten notoriety for playing the Hollywood fixer Ray Donovan on Showtime and I can’t help but notice that while both Donovan and Wepner are violent men, Donovan is clever and street smart while Wepner is easily swayed by praise. Wepner has an ego which makes some sense since he came from a background in which his ego along with his body took a pounding. When everybody loves you, it’s hard not to love yourself.

While there is some humor to the movie it falls flat in that regard a little more often than I would have liked. The humor is a bit heavy-handed and the movie would have benefited from a lighter tone overall. As for the story, some of you might be aware of Wepner’s history but most people won’t; still, the story is a bit predictable even though it is based on Wepner’s life. Hollywood has had lots of Wepners in its history.

As boxing movies go, this one isn’t going to make any grand changes to the genre but it doesn’t disgrace itself either. It’s entertaining enough and for those who are wary of the big summer blockbusters that are taking up most of the screens in the local multiplex, this makes a very entertaining counter option.

REASONS TO GO: The movie was shot to look like it was filmed in the 70s which enhances the sense of era.  Schreiber is appealing as Wepner in a Ray Donovan-esque way.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmaker needed a lighter touch here. Overall the film is inoffensive but predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, plenty of drug use, some sexuality and nudity, a lot of boxing violence and a few bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled The Bleeder in reference to Wepner’s boxing nickname “The Bayonne Bleeder.” Wepner claims the title changed due to it sounding like a horror film but it is also well-known that he detested the nickname.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ali
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Power Rangers

Advertisements

Six Rounds


Rob Peacock and Adam Bernard look like they might go a round of their own.

(2017) Drama (TMP) Adam J. Bernard, Phoebe Torrance, Santino Zicchi, Rob Peacock, Daniel Johns, Joseph Warner, Chris Rochester, Marcus Adjmul, Lesley Molony, Carolyn English, Thomasin Lockwood, Karishma Bhandari. Directed by Marcus Flemmings

 

Sometimes you run into a movie whose reach exceeds its grasp. You can tell that the filmmakers have ambitions to make something special, something unique and you root for them to do so but it doesn’t quite succeed as much as either filmmaker or viewer would like.

Set against the backdrop of the 2011 London riots (or as they are known in the myopic U.S.A. “Oh, were there riots in London in 2011?”) the prime mover here is a young black man. Stally (Bernard) is a boxer who has retired with an undefeated record, a fact he is extraordinarily proud of. He has escaped the crime-ridden neighborhood of his youth and has a real job and a beautiful white girlfriend Andrea (Torrance) whom he has nicknamed “Mermaid” because of a dress she once wore that made her appear like one. She loves him and is proud that he has bettered himself and is beginning to think about having a child with him.

One of Stally’s mates from the old days, Chris (Zicchi) has gone and done something extraordinarily stupid; he’s stolen drugs from George (Johns), Stally’s ex-manager who is in his spare time a mob boss. George wants Chris dead and reckless Chris is too proud to get himself out of the jam he’s in. Stally talks to George who gives Chris a way out; to engage in a boxing match with Stally. If Chris can last six rounds without being knocked out, he’s off the hook. The trouble is that if Chris does lose the match, there goes Stally’s undefeated record and that’s not something Stally is willing to give up easily.

The movie is mostly shot in black and white (with a few brief scenes in color, mostly when Andrea is around) and looks beautiful, the juxtaposition of black and white mirroring the commentary on racial relations in the UK. The movie is not really a boxing film and it isn’t really about the riots although the chaos is clearly on the mind of all of the characters involved. We see some footage of rioters (and I’m thinking some archival footage) but none of the main characters participate in them onscreen. Some brag about getting a “100% discount” from looting trainers or fur coats from various stores.

Bernard, who was the stunt double for John Boyega in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, proves himself an able actor. He is subtle when he needs to be, understated when he needs to be and is capable of a fine primal scream when he needs it. There has been a parade of fine actors of color from the UK lately; Bernard may well be as talented as any of them.

Torrance has kind of a thankless role but she has the ethereal beauty of a Keira Knightley and reminds me of her in her line delivery as well. She is another actor in this production who shows some immense promise; Flemmings has a great eye for talent to say the least.

I think he wanted to make a movie that is outside the box; intelligent (and it is) and innovative (which it isn’t). In fact, I think he tried a little bit too hard; some of the scenes seem to be, as MGM used to put it, art for art’s sake and sometimes at the expense of the film. It looks beautiful, it’s acted well but the dialogue sounds a bit false. Worse, the use of handheld cameras during the boxing sequences (the film is divided into rounds corresponding to the boxing match between Chris and Stally) make those scenes incredibly hard to watch without feeling a little vertigo. I wish he had taken it easier on the handhelds as much of the rest of the film is beautifully shot.

Much of the movie is to my reckoning Stally’s internal monologue; during fights he uses poetry to center himself and I believe that the rest of the action is meant to be taken as what Stally is thinking about during the course of the match (I could be wrong on this point). It’s a brilliant idea but it isn’t executed as well as it might be.

Flemmings shows some natural talent in putting this film together on a microscopic budget. Sadly it isn’t as successful for me and I have a hard time recommending it for all but serious film buffs looking for new talents before anyone else has discovered them. The storytelling could have used a little bit of tweaking but despite my rating, he really isn’t far away from creating a movie that will knock the socks off of the whole bloody world. I look forward to that film with great anticipation.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the performances are pretty feral. Torrance reminded me a bit of Keira Knightley.
REASONS TO STAY: The story gets a little bit confusing. The boxing scenes utilize the shaky-cam to the point of being nearly unwatchable. The dialogue is a little too repetitive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and a bit of violence both in the ring and outside of it.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was made for a mere £7000, or just under $9000 US.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bronx Bull
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: The Lost City of Z

Creed


Stallone gets a new lease on life.

Stallone gets a new lease on life.

(2015) Sports Drama (MGM/New Line) Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Phylicia Rashad, Tessa Thompson, Tony Bellew, Richie Coster, Andre Ward, Jacob “Stitch” Duran, Graham McTavish, Malik Bazille, Ricardo McGill, Gabe Rosado, Wood Harris, Buddy Osborn, Rupal Pujara, Brian Anthony Wilson, Joey Eye, Johanna Tolentino. Directed by Ryan Coogler

Legacies can be tricky things. We want our kids to end up better than us, to be their own people and to leave their own legacy, but sometimes our accomplishments get in the way of that. Our own success can put enormous pressure on our children.

Adonis Johnson (Jordan) has had a hard time of it. Growing up in foster care after his mother passed away (having never known his daddy who died before he was born), he is raised by Mary Anne Creed (Rashad), wife of the immortal heavyweight champion. Eventually he finds out that his father was in fact Apollo Creed, the product of an extramarital affair. Mary Anne informed Adonis of this when he was younger and Adonis, who has the boxing bug pre-wired into him, prefers to go by his birth name so that he can make his own name in the sport. Sadly, that’s only gotten him so far – low-rent fights in Tijuana.

He wants to do better though and gives up a high-paying job in which he’d just gotten promoted and heads east to Philadelphia to look up an old friend of his father; Rocky Balboa (Stallone). At first, Rocky is not terribly interested. He is busy running his restaurant and has left the boxing game behind him. Just about everyone and everything that has meant anything to him is dead or gone; he’s alone in Philly, growing older and somewhat wiser and a little bit wary about caring for anybody ever again.

Still, he sees something in Adonis – his persistence, his passion perhaps – and decides to take him on. After an impressive fight against an up-and-coming middleweight, word gets out about Adonis’ lineage. That attracts the attention of “Pretty” Ricky Conlon (real life pugilist Ballew), the World Champion from Britain who is getting ready to hang up his gloves after being convicted on a weapons charge (which somewhat ironically wouldn’t be a crime in the United States). When a sure-fire payday falls through, his manager (McTavish) is scrambling to find one last opponent and the son of Apollo Creed would have to do, particularly with ex-Champ Rocky Balboa in his corner.

As Adonis begins training, he falls for a neighbor, Bianca (Thompson) who has a burgeoning career of her own as a sultry R&B singer. Everything is going better than Adonis could have hoped; but things begin to fall apart, partly through circumstance and partly through his own bull-headed rage. Can Adonis overcome the chip on his shoulder and make a name for himself, or will he be doomed to be the failed son of a legend who couldn’t measure up to his dad’s legacy?

Coogler, who directed Jordan in the excellent Fruitvale Station, absolutely nails it for his big studio debut. A fan of the Rocky series since childhood (and bonded with his own father over), he doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel here, but merely brings all the right elements forward to make this a 21st century Rocky movie, and succeeds in what may sound like a modest ambition but is in reality much more difficult than making an homage or a reboot.

He shows off some astonishing chops as a director including a jaw-dropping travelling shot that follows Adonis into the arena from his dressing room for one of his first fights. He also films each of the three boxing matches in the film differently and  in doing so makes each match unique and memorable, so that the boxing sequences never get boring.

Stallone in particular benefits from Coogler’s sure hand in the director’s chair. We see Rocky not as a strong man in the prime of life but as an old man, facing his own mortality having outlived his wife and best friend. In many ways, Rocky has given up and is just waiting to play out his hand but Adonis instills in him once again the champion’s will to win. We see Rocky as not so much an icon, or even the cartoon character he eventually became in many ways, but as a  complex man who is much more than a pug who talks like he’s taken one too many shots to the head.

Jordan, who showed tremendous potential in Fruitvale Station, fulfills it here and shows that he can be a major star. His Adonis can be tender but has a hunger in him that drives him, one that sometimes drives him to rage. That rage often sabotages his dreams and drives away those closest to him. Adonis has to find a way to make peace with his feelings for his father and move on, and in a sense he does but there’s a lot more to it than that. To Coogler’s credit (he co-authored the screenplay), this is the kind of movie that makes you think about it and discover little nuances in the story that suddenly appear when you examine the performances. That’s some good writing, right there.

Early on, the movie is a little slow-paced as the characters are established, but that can be forgiven as it allows us to connect with them more later on. However, with the movie nearly two and a half hours long, that may be a bit more than modern attention-deficient audiences to bear, so keep that in mind.

When this movie was announced, I was sure this was going to continue flogging a franchise that I considered to be a dead horse. I was a little more hopeful when I heard Coogler was directing it – I’m a big fan of Fruitvale Station. But seeing this exceeded all my expectations and showed that even when you think a film franchise has done and said everything it can, the right artist can come in and breathe new life and make it seem fresh and new again. A lot of folks are calling this one of the best films of the year and I can’t really argue with them. This is certainly a must-see movie for the holiday season, and should be seen the first chance you get if you haven’t seen it already. I’m certainly regretting waiting so long to get into the theater to see it myself.

REASONS TO GO: Emotionally powerful. Some of Stallone’s best work. Jordan serves notice that he is an actor to be reckoned with.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit, particularly early on. A bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Boxing violence (and a little outside the ring), foul language and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Rocky film to not be written by Stallone, nor does he appear as a boxer in the ring. It is also, at just over two hours, the longest film in the franchise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rocky
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Holly and The Quill begins!

Southpaw (2015)


Brothers in battle.

Brothers in battle.

(2015) Drama (Weinstein) Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence, 50 Cent, Skylan Brooks, Naomie Harris, Victor Ortiz, Beau Knapp, Miguel Gomez, Dominic Colon, Jose Caraballo, Malcolm M. Mays, Aaron Quattrocchi, Lana Young, Danny Henriquez, Patsy Meck, Vito Grassi, Tony Weeks, Jimmy Lennon Jr., Claire Foley. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

The popularity of boxing has a lot to do with primal emotions; conquer or be conquered, imposing your physical will on another. But the ring has a lot more to it than that. Some look at it as a symbol of all that is corrupt with our society; others look at it as an opportunity for redemption. The ring is what you make it.

Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) has made a lot out of it. An orphan from Hell’s Kitchen, he has managed to take his strength, his absolute drive and his rage and channel it into the light heavyweight championship. However, his wife Maureen (McAdams), who was also an orphan in Hell’s Kitchen, is concerned. Billy is taking a fearsome amount of punishment with every bout and in his most recent one against a fighter who shouldn’t have come close to doing as much damage, it’s worse than ever. She’s concerned that one day soon that he’ll push himself too far and be permanently damaged.

But in the meantime, they are basking in his success; his manager Jordan Mains (50 Cent) has negotiated a $30 million deal with HBO which would set him up for life, and while Maureen is hesitant to let Billy fight so soon after the last beating he took, there’s the future to consider.

But that future is about to get changed in a big way. A single moment leads to Billy losing everything; his title, his career, his family, his self-respect – a moment that Weinstein’s trailer department thoughtlessly spoiled. Billy finds himself out on the streets, looking for work. He finds it in a dilapidated old gym, run by dilapidated old Tick Wills (Whitaker).

Eventually Billy finds his center again but in his way is a payday that will help him regain some of what he’s lost but set himself up to take revenge on those who took it. He is left with a conundrum; to continue on the path he’s on and struggle indefinitely, or to go back the way he came to risk losing himself – but to possibly gain regaining himself. Tough choices, but the answer becomes clear – his daughter comes first.

And in fact, this is sort of the same choice that every hero in every boxing movie has ever made, from Rocky Balboa to Jake LaMotta and everywhere in between. This is, in essence, one 124 minute boxing movie cliche and as long as you understand that going in, you’re going to be all right more or less, but that’s as far as you would go normally; just watch it and move on to other entertainments. What elevates this particular film is Jake Gyllenhaal.

After an unjustly Oscar-snubbed performance in Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal returns with an equally marvelous showing here. He went from the emaciated weasel in the former film to a buff muscle-bound athlete here and the two roles couldn’t be more dissimilar in every other standpoint as well. Both characters are imperfect and somewhat flawed but while his character here has a good heart that his wife brings out of him. While his character in Nightcrawler is slick and savvy, Billy is direct and simple. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he has street smarts. You never tire of watching him.

Mostly after that the level of supporting performances drop off. McAdams and Whitaker are both just fine but they get little screen time and . Laurence, as Billy and Maureen’s daughter Leila, is clearly a rising child star. She plays a little girl dealing with some absolutely adult issues and pulls it off like a champ. Hopefully being in a film with actors the like of Gyllenhaal and Whitaker will only help her skills rocket into the stratosphere.

The boxing scenes are solidly done, often employing a POV type of camera work that makes you feel like you’re in the ring with Billy and/or his opponent. This could have been gimmicky but it is used to great effect and never feels cheap. It’s a rare case where a camera trick actually enhances the movie rather than makes you realize you’re watching a movie, a very difficult line to balance. Also, Southpaw effectively captures the sordid world of boxing, but truthfully no better or no worse than most of the better movies about boxing.

There is a bit of a thug life vibe here – think Gyllenhaal in his End of Watch role – that at times rings a little false; it’s sort of like 1997 called and wants its attitude back. However, given Gyllenhaal’s performance (and that of Oona Laurence) there is enough to solidly recommend the movie despite a story that feels like it was written in 1949. And the fact that you could apply the story essentially to both eras is a reason to rejoice – or to get very depressed. Maybe both at the same time.

REASONS TO GO: Another outstanding performance by Gyllenhaal. Some fairly intense boxing scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Very, very cliche. A little too thug life for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence both in the ring and out and lots and lots of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Billy Hope was originally cast with Eminem and filming actually began with him in it, but production had to be halted when he opted to concentrate on his music career; Gyllenhaal was eventually cast in the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Champ
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Down, But Not Out

One for the Money


One for the Money

Katherine Heigl poses for another glamour shot while Ana Reeder has a moment.

(2012) Action Comedy (Lionsgate) Katherine Heigl, Jason O’Mara, Debbie Reynolds, Daniel Sunjata, John Leguizamo, Sherri Shepherd, Debra Monk, Nate Mooney, Adam Paul, Ana Reeder, Fisher Stevens, Patrick Fischler, Ryan Michelle Bathe, Leonardo Nam. Directed by Julie Ann Robinson

 

Desperate times call for desperate measures. When Stephanie Plum (Heigl) loses her job as a lingerie salesperson at Macy’s and goes six long months without a paycheck, she is reaching that desperation level of which I referred.

So when her cousin Vinnie (Fischler) has an opening at his bail bonds business for a bounty hunter. The kicker is that the guy she has to arrest is Joe Morelli (O’Mara) who was the one to – how to put this delicately – deflower Stephanie and then dump her unceremoniously, making him a first class schnook and a reason for Stephanie to jump on board with both feet.

Of course she knows next to nothing about bounty hunting, so she enlists the help of veteran hunter Ranger (Sunjata) who shows her the ropes and seems to be a little sweet on her (although this never goes anywhere in the movie). Of course it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

The trouble is that Joe – a cop – doesn’t particularly want to go to prison and there’s a really good chance he’s innocent. He’s involved with a rather vicious boxer who may have murdered his girlfriend and may be involved with organized crime. The people who are after Joe are serious and lethal, and Stephanie finds herself smack dab in the middle. With the aid of her informants Lula (Shepherd) and Jackie (Bathe) – both prostitutes – a friendly boxing promoter (Leguizamo), her boss’s brassy secretary (Reeder) and her doting grandmother (Reynolds), she has a fighting chance to get out of this in one piece. That is, if Joe doesn’t kill her first.

This is based on the first installment of a series of books by Janet Evanovich that is extremely popular with the mystery-loving set. Heigl is apparently a big fan of the series and is producing the movie as well as starring in it. One suspects that she had a hand in casting herself in the role, which was a bit of a mistake. Heigl excels at breezy romantic comedy roles; her other action pics have been less successful.

In the books, Plum has loads of attitude and plenty of chutzpah, much more than Heigl conveys here. Heigl delivers the wisecracks but without the strength of character that Plum possesses. Heigl portrays her with a bit more vulnerability than I recall from the books. Now I’m not one of those sticklers for movie characters being absolutely identical to their literary counterparts – that’s not always possible or reasonable – but there are core traits that make the character unique and those shouldn’t be messed with.

Evanovich excels at creating unique characters and Ranger and Lula are two of her best. Shepherd makes something of a poor man’s Octavia Spencer but she does the role justice. I’m not real familiar with Sunjata but he is one of the better performers here; I looked forward to all of his scenes in the movie and he seemed to be the most at ease in his role. He didn’t make Ranger a superman, but he did give him that air of confidence that is needed to pull the part off.

Reynolds is one of the reasons to see the movie all by herself. She rarely makes screen appearances and while this doesn’t exactly rate with some of her finest work, it’s always wonderful to see a genuine Hollywood star (in the traditional sense of the word) at work.

The movie has been getting savage reviews and in some ways I can see the point – Robinson, primarily a television director, seems ill-at-ease on the big screen, creating a movie that seems more suitable for an hour-long network show than a big screen franchise. There’s a curious lack of energy here (although not for lack of trying) and while it conveys some of the charm of New Jersey, it adds none of the flavor, like a plate of spaghetti with no sauce.

Still, I found it pleasantly entertaining and while it’s not a movie that’s likely to stick in your memory for very long, it is diverting enough while you’re watching it. If I’m going to pay ten bucks a head for a movie, I at least want to be entertained and this movie delivers in that department. What more do you want?

REASONS TO GO: Way more fun than “Jersey Shore.” Engaging characters.

REASONS TO STAY: Feels more like a TV movie. Lacks energy.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a certain amount of violence, plenty of language, some sexuality (and partial nudity), a bit of drug use and plenty of Jersey attitude.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are 18 volumes currently in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, all of which have a number in the title in some form.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 2% positive reviews. Metacritic: 22/100. The reviews are as bad as they get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bounty Hunter

GREY’S ANATOMY LOVERS: Heigl, O’Mara, Sunjata and Monk have all appeared on “Grey’s Anatomy,” with Heigl and Sunjata being past or present regular cast members. Robinson has directed several episodes of the show as well.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Big Miracle

 

Real Steel


Real Steel

Rocky Sock'em Robots

(2011) Science Fiction (DreamWorks) Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo, Anthony Mackie, Hope Davis, James Rebhorn, Kevin Durand, Marco Ruggeri, Olga Fonda, Karl Yune, John Gatins, Gregory Sims, Torey Adkins. Directed by Shawn Levy

There are family films that are palatable; the kids in them aren’t cutesy, or unrealistically savvy or anything other than what kids really are (if you’ve had the chance to talk to one or two of them recently). Others are not – they pander to the kids hoping that they’ll drag their parents to the multiplex again and again forgetting one immutable law – the parents control the cash and if they hate a movie, they aren’t going to take their kid to it more than once.

Charlie Kenton (Jackman) is a down on his luck ex-fighter who now bottom feeds on the robot boxing circuit, taking his beat-up robots into backwater county fairs and skeezy underground joints and putting them into impossible odds, betting money he doesn’t have and skipping town when he inevitably loses, his robots reduced to scrap metal.

To make matters worse, Charlie’s ex-girlfriend has passed away abruptly, leaving Charlie with legal rights to his son Max (Goyo) whom he has had minimal contact with after walking out on both him and his mom when he was born. Max’s Aunt Debra (Davis) is keen to get custody and Charlie is disposed in that direction – for a price, which Debra’s rich husband (Rebhorn) is willing to pay.

Max turns out to be quite the Robot Boxing fan and quite vocal in his opinions. Charlie’s kinda-girlfriend Bailey (Lilly) whose dad trained Charlie back in the day (and in whose gym Charlie essentially lives when he’s not on the road) finds Max to be charming, Charlie not so much. After Charlie’s last chance robot Noisy Boy gets torn into pieces, Charlie needs to find a robot quickly. They find an old-fashioned sparring robot of an obsolete generation. Charlie isn’t terribly optimistic but Max sees something in the machine, which is named Atom.

Atom turns out to have a pretty good memory for moves after Charlie teaches him a few. Atom, boxing more like a human than a machine, begins to compile a winning streak and for the first time it looks like Charlie Kenton has a chance to be somebody. However, some of Charlie’s old sins are about to catch up to him. Can Charlie get his last chance at the brass ring – and more importantly, make something of his last chance to be a father?

Levy is best known for Night at the Museum and its sequel. Yes, this is very much a kids movie and has ready-made marketing tools in the robots. Yes, the robots are pretty impressive and cool. Their inevitable action figures will make great stocking stuffers. Kids are going to go absolutely bananas over them, particularly young boys.

Jackman tries hard but he probably should have tried harder when deciding whether or not to do this movie. It’s the kind of kids movie that I absolutely hate; it turns the adults into buffoons to be disregarded and kids into wise, worldly sorts who instinctively know the right thing to do because, as we all know, kids make such great life decisions when they’re eleven.

Lilly, who nabbed a cult following on “Lost,” doesn’t show signs of having big screen charisma although to be fair, she is given a part that is largely ornamental. There isn’t anything here really for her to work with; Bailey is a long-suffering girlfriend who patiently hopes for her man to turn things around. Kate (her character on the TV show) would never have put up with Charlie this long – she’d have moved on to Sawyer or Jack long ago.

Da Queen thought at first that Max was played by the same actor who played Anakin in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. That, by the way, is not an encouraging sign. While Jake Lloyd isn’t Dakota Goyo, they seem cut from the same cloth – trying so hard not to be a kid that they turn out  to be not really relatable at all. He’s stiff and insufferable, the kind of character you are rooting to get written out of the film.

In fact, I suspect this would have been a much better movie without the kid factor; had the writers and filmmakers just stuck with the redemption of Charlie through his robots, this might have been a way more interesting movie. However in making a movie in which the most important element was the toy tie-in the filmmakers have created a film that please nobody, cribs its plot shamelessly from Rocky and wont remain in memory in the time it takes to walk from the theater seat to your car.

REASONS TO GO: The robots are pretty nifty and their boxing matches are well-choreographed.

REASONS TO STAY: The kid is smarter than the adults and the plot is predictable and lacks credibility. Just awful family movie pablum.

FAMILY VALUES: While there is some violence, it is mostly of the robotic boxing sort and the bad language just isn’t that bad.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The girls who ask to pose with Ambush early on in the movie are director Shawn Levy’s daughters.

HOME OR THEATER: Toss-up; some of the arena scenes look nice on the big screen but the rest…your call.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: City of Your Final Destination

The Fighter


The Fighter

Mark Wahlberg thinks he's in the next Batman movie; Christian Bale thinks he's the newest membrer of NKOTB.

(2010) True Sports Drama (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee, Mickey O’Keefe, Melissa McMeekin, Bianca Hunter, Erica McDermott, Jill Quigg, Dendrie Taylor, Kate O’Brien, Frank Renzulli. Directed by David O. Russell

We all have our burdens to bear in life, and sometimes those burdens are our own families. They may mean well and have our interests at heart, but their own demons sometimes get in the way. There are even occasions where their only interests in their heart are their own.

Micky Ward (Wahlberg) is a prize fighter whose career has stalled. He has entrusted his training to his brother Dicky Eklund (Bale), himself a fighter whose moment in the sun came when he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard during a 1978 fight. The pride of Lowell, Massachusetts has sunk quite a ways since then, becoming addicted to crack. However, he has high hopes of a comeback, and HBO has sent a documentary crew to film it.

In the meantime, Micky has a fight to take care of and he has prepared diligently for it, no thanks to Dicky who is often a no-show. Their mother Alice (Leo) is their manager, and she is not so much a typical manager as she is a force of nature to be reckoned with. She is sort of like Mamie van Doren gone to seed, a blonde bombshell who smokes like a fiend and wears too-tight pants and too-high heels, not unlike a moll in a mobster movie. Nobody in the business really takes her seriously, although nobody else in the family – including the seven sisters of the boys (acting as something of a drinking-chain smoking- bickering Greek chorus – is willing to say so.

Micky’s dad (McGee) thinks his son has the talent to go farther with better management; so does family friend Mickey O’Keefe (playing himself) who is also a Lowell cop. So does Micky’s new girlfriend, comely barmaid Charlene (Adams) who is derisively labeled an “MTV Girl” by Micky’s sisters because she had the temerity to attend college. The only one who doesn’t seem to think so is Micky himself.

That’s until the fight Micky has been preparing for collapses when his opponent gets the flu and Micky is forced to fight someone 20 pounds heavier, much stronger and much faster than he is. Of course, the results are predictable; Micky gets his ass handed to him. Disappointed and ashamed, he hides out in his house, seriously thinking of getting out of the fight game.

In the meantime, Dicky runs afoul of the law trying to raise some money to get Micky trained (typically for Dicky, he tries scamming local guys into giving them his wallets by impersonating a police officer arresting them in a prostitution sting). During the course of the arrest, overzealous police officers shatter Micky’s hands, ending any opportunity for a fight.

As the months pass by and Micky’s hand slowly heals, his relationship with Charlene gets stronger while he continues to drift further away from his mom and Dicky. Micky finds himself a new manager and begins training with O’Keefe, under the condition that Alice and Dicky not be involved with his career. As for Dicky, his life sinks to a new low when he discovers the documentary that he thought was about his comeback was in fact about how drugs destroyed his promising career and his life. The rift in the family starts to heal when Dicky gives Micky some advice for an upcoming fight that turns out better than their original plan formulated by O’Keefe and his manager (Renzulli).

Micky begins to go on a winning streak and eventually wins himself a title shot. He would seem to have it all, but can he continue to keep his family out of the picture or can he figure out a way to reconcile everyone and in doing so, become the champion he was always meant to be?

This is based on a true story, which in itself is kind of amazing because Micky’s family is not portrayed in a terribly flattering light, but assuming that the events are as depicted here, you have to admire the Wards and Eklunds for allowing this to be filmed as it was. The family is torn apart by drugs and by their own ability to see past their own self-interest. Alice is more about being the center of attention, and shamelessly favors Dicky over Micky. Micky acts somewhat numb, unable to stand up for himself or even voice dissent until he finally gets the support from Charlene he desperately needs.

Bale, who has done stellar work in the past, gets a role he can sink his teeth into. He lost a considerable amount of weight to get the gaunt junkie look of Dicky Eklund, and utilizes a rubber-limbed, rubber-faced demeanor that is half-clown, half-tragedy. We never get a sense of what Dicky was like before the drugs destroyed him but we do see him destroyed, unable to pull himself out of the mire until he gets clean in prison. Bale is a front-runner for a supporting actor role come Oscar time, and deservedly so. This may be the role that finally wins him the statue.

Wahlberg is an actor who can be depended on to do a solid job and occasionally (as in The Departed) stellar work. He almost never turns in a bad performance and here, he is given a role which is far from easy. It’s not that Micky is a complicated role; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Micky is actually a little bit boring, and yet he needs to be the centerpiece of the film. It’s hard to have someone so without inertia at the forefront of a movie, but Wahlberg manages to make the character one we can root for due to his natural charisma and likability.

It doesn’t hurt to have two of the better actresses in Hollywood in the supporting cast as well. Ever since Leo attracted notice for her work in Frozen River, I can’t say as she’s performed poorly in roles supporting (as this one is) or starring. She imbues Alice with shades of both fragility and strength, overwhelming her younger son at the same time desperately seeking approval. It’s a brilliant performance and deserves Oscar notice as well, although it may not be as slam dunk a nomination as Bale’s.

Amy Adams is a terrific actress who can assail anything from dramas to comedies to musicals and pull them off with equal skill. Here, she is at her sexiest and her most vulnerable. She is also strong and able to stand up for herself in a tough crowd, both at the bar where she works and among the Eklund women who are a formidable bunch themselves.

Director Russell resists the temptation to drag this movie into sports movie clichés and treacle, making instead something that resonates powerfully rather than going for cheap chest-pounding scenes of sports triumph. Micky Ward’s pursuit of the championship takes a back seat to his pursuit of his own identity, out of the considerable shadows of his mother and brother and that’s what makes this movie so good.

REASONS TO GO: The performances are all top notch and in Bale’s case, Oscar-worthy. The story is compelling and inspiring without being smarmy.

REASONS TO STAY: The boxing scenes could have been better.

FAMILY VALUES: One of the HBO cameramen in the film was played by Richard Farrell, who directed the original HBO documentary High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell that depicted Dicky Eklund.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There’s a hidden Mickey in the film; check out the back of Sam’s motorcycle helmet.

HOME OR THEATER: This works as well on the home screen as it does at the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: The Tourist