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

Rudo Y Cursi


Rudo Y Cursi

Hee Haw was never like this.

(Sony Classics) Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Guillermo Fracella, Dolores Heredia, Adriana Paz, Jessica Mas, Salvador Zerboni. Directed by Carlos Cuaron

When you have nothing, it follows you have nothing to lose. That’s not the way life really works, however – there is always something to lose.

Tato (Bernal) and Beto (Luna) Verdusco are a pair of brothers living in the small impoverished Mexican village of Tlachatlan, whose economy revolves mainly around the banana plantation. Their mother has had a succession of husbands, each one a loser in some way shape or form. Tato dreams of becoming rich and famous as a singer; Beto is more of a realist, having a wife (Paz) and child that he must support, which he is content to do as the assistant to the assistant foreman on the banana plantation.

They are both gifted soccer players and play on the local team on weekends. One fateful day, the expensive sports car of Batuta (Fracella), the best talent scout in Mexican soccer, breaks down in Tlachatlan on the day of a local game. Unable to get the local repair shop to move faster than the average snail, Batuta and the first in a series of gorgeous girlfriends decide to watch the game to alleviate the boredom.

He’s pleasantly surprised at the play of the brothers, each of whom has the talent to be a big star in the Mexican First Division of soccer. Unfortunately, Batuta can only take one of the brothers with him. As to which one he brings with him, it all boils down to a penalty kick.

It turns out the lucky brother is Tato, a forward with a scoring touch, leaving Beto angry and frustrated – pro soccer had been his dream, not Tato’s and Beto can’t help feeling cheated  by life. His wife Tona (Paz) is trying to help make ends meet by becoming a salesperson for a dietary supplement whose befits are murky at best. However, eventually when a club needs a goaltender, Batuta is able to bring Beto up for his own shot at the brass ring.

Both boys want to build a beachside home for their mother, but a is usually the case when those in abject poverty come into wealth, the money gets squandered, Beto on high stakes poker games, Tato on Maya (Mas), the beautiful supermodel and television personality that Tato is dating.

The two brothers wind up on rival teams, each brother having been given a nickname – Tato is Cursi (which can be translated as corny) and Beto is Rudo, which critics have translated as tough; that’s not quite the case. The word in Spanish implies a certain lack of manners or temprament. It’s not quite “Rude” which you might think it is, but it’s pretty close.

Over the past decade, Mexican cinema has really started to take off thanks to directors like Cuaron, whose brother directed the stunning Y Tu Mama Tambien (which Carlos wrote and Luna and Bernal starred in). Rather than playing rich kids exploring rural Mexico as was the case in the prior film, this time Bernal and Luna – who are actual childhood friends, part of the reason that their chemistry works so well together – are from a rural background, exploring the bright lights of the big city.

While soccer is a central theme to the movie, it remains a bit of a metaphor. The Beautiful Game is a ticket out of poverty, just as pro sports are here in the States. There, as here, there is a mystique to the lifestyle of the pro athlete. The fans in Mexico are a bit more rabid than you can imagine, however. For example, when Cursi goes on an extended scoring slump, he is given death threats by zealous fans – just before they ask him for his autograph.

Luna and Bernal have an uncommon chemistry that only comes from being close friends for a good long time. They have an easygoing rapport that descends into verbal shorthand from time to time; like any pair of brothers, their fights are more vicious than those between strangers and yet when push comes to shove, they are there for each other.

There is a lot of quirky humor here. When Cursi gets the big singing break he’s looking for, he chooses to do a norteno version of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” which would lead anyone to tell him not to quit his day job. The music video he makes for his song borders on the surreal.

Like most good cinema, there’s an element of the morality play here but the filmmakers choose not to hit you over the head with it. The movie pokes gentle fun at obsessions and dreams, and on the difference between the rural and the urban. The humor breaks down in places and descends from zaniness into silliness (the difference between the two is subtle yet profound), but has its heart in the right place. This is the kind of movie that could only be made in Mexico and it captures the sensibility and humor that seems to be in the DNA of the Mexican people.

WHY RENT THIS: A slice of Mexican life, well directed and with a wry sense of humor that permeates it like a good mole sauce.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Descends into silliness in some places.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of foul language as well as some sexuality and drug use. Not that your kids are itching to see subtitled films, but you should probably think twice before showing it to them – this isn’t Goal.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the soccer teams and their players that appear in the movie are fictional, although some of the action is filmed in actual Mexican Division I soccer stadiums.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a karaoke version of Cursi’s hit single on the Blu-Ray edition if you want to sing along.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Life is Hot in Cracktown

The Lucky Ones


The Lucky Ones

Michael Pena, Rachel McAdams and Tim Robbins be all that they can be.

(Roadside Attractions) Tim Robbins, Rachel McAdams, Michael Pena, John Heard, Molly Hagan, Mark L. Young, Howard Platt, Arden Myrin, Coburn Goss. Directed by Neil Burger

Many soldiers are called to serve their country in situations where they may be called into harm’s way. Some of them do not return, making the ultimate sacrifice. We think of the ones that return as being the lucky ones.

Three soldiers are on their way home to the United States from a German military hospital, all three having been injured in Iraq (two in combat situations, one in a situation he’d rather not talk about). Colee (McAdams) is on leave after a leg injury has left her with a limp; she hopes to return the guitar of a comrade to his family in Las Vegas. Cheaver (Robbins) is career army who is finally calling it quits; he suffered a back injury but is eager to reunite with his wife and son in St. Louis. TK (Pena) was the victim of a groin injury during a roadside bombing; also on leave, he wants to stop in Las Vegas to see if his equipment is still working before seeing his girlfriend in California.

All three land in New York City but a blackout has grounded every single flight at least until the next day and chances are that the wait in the airport will be even longer as the airlines scramble to get everyone where they need to be. Cheaver determines to rent a car and drive to St. Louis; Colee and TK overhear his plan and offer to go in with him; they figure they can grab a flight in St. Louis and get to Las Vegas from there.

Of course things immediately start to go wrong, from keys being locked in the car to accidents to breakdowns. They run into every conceivable eccentric from here to St. Louis and beyond. They also find that the return home is nothing like what they expected it to be.

The movie came out amid a raft of Iraq War-themed films that all, without exception, tanked at the box office regardless of how good the movies were, who was in them and what the theme was. The American movie-going public sent a very clear message to Hollywood: no films about the war please. That’s a bit of a shame, as some really decent movies, such as In the Valley of Elah, The Hurt Locker and Stop-Loss got left by the wayside.

This modestly-budgeted film also suffered a similar fate, despite the filmmakers and cast’s declaration that this movie most definitely wasn’t about the war, and quite frankly I can see their point. However, in the same way, this isn’t a road movie either and while the war theme hangs heavily over the film (the opening sequence is the only scene set in the war), this ultimately becomes more of a three-way buddy flick.

In fact, it is the bond between the three soldiers that makes the heart of this movie beat strongly, and fortunately for us, Robbins, Pena and McAdams are all fine actors. McAdams in particular does a wonderful job as a perky, terminally optimistic Southern gal whose sweet smile hides a great deal of inner pain. McAdams is a very big reason why the movie’s charm got under my skin.

Pena is a fine actor (see World Trade Center and Crash) who hasn’t really gotten the attention he deserves and consequently doesn’t get the roles he deserves to play either. In that sense, he’s a lot like Adam Beach – someone who gives terrific performances every time out and yet hasn’t gotten the role that will really establish his career. Pena does a great job as usual but I think he’ll have to keep on looking for that elusive career-establishing part.

Robbins is the father figure and emotional center of the movie. He wisely underplays the role, making Cheaver a quiet leader rather than a rah-rah sort. When he breaks down emotionally, it comes without warning and gives the moment greater impact.

While I opine that this isn’t truly a road movie, it certainly is set up to be one, with all the stock characters (the oversexed housewife, redneck truckers, country club blowhard etc.) show up one by one, and the stock situations I mentioned earlier happen right on cue. The filmmakers try to throw a curveball with a tornado, but the effects are a bit weak and you wind up wondering “Why the hell did they do that?” after it’s gone.

Needless to say, this is a flawed movie whose heart is in the right place. The relationship between the three soldiers, as well as their background stories, compels us from the very beginning to get involved in the movie. That’s what casting the right actors for the right parts will do for you. Hopefully, film audiences will get over their distaste for movies set in the Iraqi war milieu soon enough that people will catch this movie on DVD; it’s not Oscar material by a long stretch, but it is deserving of an audience, one that it didn’t get during its theatrical run.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performances by the three leads.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the situations are terribly cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bad language and a little bit of sexual content but it is the subject matter that makes this more for mature audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This movie is the third occasion that Tim Robbins has played a member of the military; the other two films were Top Gun and Jacob’s Ladder.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Hurt Locker