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

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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

Daredevil


Daredevil

The man without fear...of red leather.

(20th Century Fox) Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jon Favreau, Scott Terra, Ellen Pompeo, Joe Pantoliano, David Keith, Leland Orser, Erick Avari, Derrick O’Connor. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

In the wake of the success of X-Men and Spider-Man, the rights to a boatload of Marvel superheroes were sold to several studios eager to cash in on the superhero craze. This led to a glut of hero movies in the middle pat of the last decade wth some of the releases being better than others.

Matt Murdock (Affleck) is a lawyer who was blinded in an accident as a young boy (Terra). His father Jack “The Devil” Murdock (Keith) is an ex-prize fighter trying to raise his boy as best he can on his own, desperately hoping he won’t make the same mistakes he did and elevate himself from a Hells Kitchen he could never escape himself.

Matt is bright enough although he gets picked on by the local bullies because he won’t fight, at the behest of his father. Young Matt believes his father to be an honest dockworker, but Jack has been picking up extra cash working as hired muscle for a local crime boss. When Matt accidentally witnesses his father’s other line of work, he runs blindly away, and winds up being dowsed in the face by the proverbial toxic liquid.

The result is that the boy is blinded for life, but the compensation is that his other senses sharpen significantly. As a matter of fact, he uses sound as a kind of “sonar” to allow him to “see” images. Tired of being picked on, he begins to work out, train himself to fight. In the meantime, Jack is shocked into going back on the straight and narrow and takes up fighting again and does pretty well. However, when he refuses to throw a fight, he is murdered.

Years later, Murdock works alongside his partner Foggy Nelson (Favreau) in a Hells Kitchen law firm that specializes in taking on the cases of the underdog against the corrupt and the untouchable. It doesn’t pay very well – often the poor clients pay in fish or some other form of barter – but Murdock is able to sleep nights. Well, he would if he were sleeping; instead, he goes out to exact justice that he can’t obtain as a lawyer as a costumed vigilante known as Daredevil. The police, predictably, pooh-pooh his existence but a lone reporter, Ben Urich (Pantoliano) pursues the story with the zeal of Woodward and Bernstein.

Murdock meets Elektra Natchios (Garner), the daughter of a billionaire, in a coffee shop and falls for her instantly. The attraction is mutual; she also has superb martial arts training and this is one of those rare courtships that take place by beating each other up. Elektra’s dad (Avari) is tied to the new crime boss, Wilson Fisk (Duncan) a.k.a. the Kingpin of Crime, and is anxious to get out and retire. Fisk doesn’t like people backing out on him and hires an Irish hit man named Bullseye (Farrell) to take care of business.

Bullseye has the uncanny knack of accuracy. Anything he throws hurls or shoots hits its target without fail. When Murdock discovers what’s going on, he immediately changes into his Daredevil guise and rushes out to protect the father of the woman he loves. Unfortunately, he gets there too late to prevent Natchios’ death, but just in time for Elektra to mistakenly believe him responsible. He also manages to avoid one of Bullseye’s projectiles, earning the obsessive enmity of Bullseye in the process.

Director Johnson was woefully inexperienced when he was given this project to direct and in many ways, it shows. What also shows is the reverence and respect in which he holds the source material. It becomes a two-edged sword; some of the elements he wants to bring from the comic book series (such as Daredevil’s uncanny agility) don’t translate well, although at the time it was released I thought it looked fine to be honest. After watching it at home recently, I found the wire work to look unnatural and there is quite a bit of it.

Affleck was uncomfortable playing a costumed superhero and it is very apparent. When he’s Matt Murdock, for the most part he’s fine. However, there are times as Murdock when he looks soulful and a bit sorry for himself; that just doesn’t jive too well with the costumed vigilante that Daredevil is and who Matt Murdock is on the comic book page. There, Murdock is stubborn and principled and prone to leaping where angels fear to tread – he is literally without fear. Here, Affleck plays him as stubborn and principled and a bit of a whiner. It’s not a bad performance but it isn’t the right one.

Garner was magnificent as Elektra here, which makes the spin-off film she did on the character all the more mystifying in how truly awful it was. She makes Elektra passionate and real, suspicious and lethal. The comic book character is one of the most compelling in the Marvel universe and while she doesn’t quite reach those standards, Garner does do a fine job in bringing her to life.

Duncan and Farrell both look like they’re having the time of their lives in the villain roles, with Farrell often looking up with a boyish smile like he just discovered its Christmas morning. Few actors today can play villains with the kind of relish that Farrell brings to the role. Duncan is far too jovial as a person to make Fisk as menacing as he is on the comic book pages, but he manages to make him memorable nonetheless.

Fox has had several of the Marvel properties under its banners (including the ongoing X-Men and the Fantastic Four) and while the movie was a success for the most part, it never achieved the popularity or acclaim to make a sequel likely – in fact, Affleck has stated flat-out that he would not consider playing the role again, or any other superhero role for that matter.

In any case, the movie is entertaining enough to recommend it and the soundtrack with its loud guitar-oriented rock is one of the better movie soundtracks of the last decade, and it made a star of Evanescence, which may or may not be a bad thing depending on your view of Evanescence (good thing in my book). If you’re looking for something to transcend the genre, keep on moving. If you’re looking for something that will keep you interested and invested for 90 minutes, you’ve found your movie.

WHY RENT THIS: There are times when Affleck is effective as Matt Murdock. The supporting cast is excellent. The filmmakers hold the source material in high regard and utilize a lot of elements that will make Daredevil fans smile. The soundtrack is great.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The overuse of wirework makes the fight scenes look just awful. Affleck spends too much time looking soulful and trying to evoke pathos; the Matt Murdock I know doesn’t feel nearly as sorry for himself.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of comic book violence and some sensuality, but nothing too graphic.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The budget for the movie was initially set at $50 million, but after the success of Spider-Man Fox upped the budget to $80 million.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray includes several music videos from the soundtrack, “Men Without Fear: Creating Daredevil” which focuses on the creative aspects of the comic series and “Beyond Hell’s Kitchen” which details the challenges and tribulations on getting the movie made.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Revolutionary Road