Real Steel – the new sci-fi sports flick from Night at the Museum director Shawn Levy – is set in the year 2020. Its vision of the future looks remarkably similar to the present save for the fact that the sport of boxing has been taken over by pugilistic robots. There are no robot butlers taxi drivers or senators – just boxers. Apparently technology in 2020 has advanced enough to allow for the creation of massive mechanized beings of astonishing dexterity but humanity has found no use for them beyond the boxing ring.
Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton a has-been boxer turned small-time robot-fight promoter. A consummate hustler who’ll do anything for a buck Charlie’s fallen on hard times of late. Opportunity arrives in the diminutive guise of 11-year-old Max (Dakota Goyo) his estranged son who turns out to be something of an electronics wunderkind. Together they work to fashion Atom an obsolete ramshackle “sparring robot” left to rot in a junkyard into a contender.
Anyone who’s seen an underdog sports movie – or any movie for that matter – made in the last half-century can fairly easily ascertain how this one plays out. (The story borrows tropes from The Champ Rocky and Over the Top wholesale.) Atom proves surprisingly capable in the ring compensating for his inferior technology with grit perseverance and an ability to absorb massive amounts of punishment. Under the guidance of Charlie and Max he makes an improbable run through the ranks eventually earning a one-in-a-million shot at the World Robot Boxing championship.
Real Steel was executive-produced by Steven Spielberg; it bears his unmistakable imprint. Levy judiciously deploys Spielberg’s patented blockbuster mix of dazzling special effects and gooey sentiment wrapping it all in a highly polished if wholly synthetic package. Still Real Steel might have amounted to so much glossy hokum were it not for its champion Hugh Jackman. Other actors might eye such a project as an opportunity to coast for an easy paycheck but damned if Jackman isn’t completely invested. The film’s underdog storyline isn’t nearly as inspiring as watching its star so gamely devote himself to selling material that will strike anyone over the age of 12 as patently ludicrous. His efforts pay off handsomely: Real Steel is about as rousing and affecting as any film inspired by Rock’em Sock’em Robots can expect to be. (The filmmakers claim lineage to a short story-turned-Twilight Zone episode but who are they kidding?)
Though Garry Marshall hasn’t made a decent flick since 1990’s Pretty Woman he still apparently wields a not inconsiderable amount of clout in Hollywood. What else could explain the all-star ensemble of actors who gathered for Valentine’s Day? Among the major names found probing the turgid depths of the nearly 80-year-old director’s insipid rom-com are Julia Roberts Anne Hathaway Ashton Kutcher Jessica Alba Jamie Foxx Jessica Biel Taylor Lautner and various other prominent actors who either owe favors to Marshall or whose incriminating photos he holds in his possession.
A slice-of-life tale unfolding in Los Angeles over the course of a single Valentine’s Day the film chronicles the romantic adventures of a diverse cast of characters at various stages of relationships and encompassing virtually every conceivable demographic category. Their ages backgrounds and perspectives often dramatically differ but they each share one trait in common: Almost without exception they are all ceaselessly painfully disastrously unfunny.
Some temper their dishumor with a dose of the annoying like Kutcher whose dopey florist Marshall unwisely chose to anchor Valentine’s Day’s story around. Others add a dash of the preposterous like Roberts dressed in military fatigues in a laughable attempt to play a U.S. Army Captain on leave from the front. Still others add cloying sentiment to the mix like Bryce Robinson’s lovelorn 10-year-old whose grandparents played by Shirley MacLaine and Hector Elizondo ply him with nostalgic romantic tips pre-fabricated for maximum inter-generational cuteness. Whatever your preferred method of cinematic torture may be you’ll undoubtedly encounter it in this film.
In addition to challenging the pain threshold Valentine’s Day offers a test of endurance as well its story requiring over two hours to satisfy the narrative demands of its swollen cast. If you didn’t despise Hallmark’s ersatz holiday before you certainly will after enduring this Bataan Death March of rom-coms.
In other words Prada--based on the bestselling novel by Lauren Weisberger--unfortunately plays upon the sitcom-y boss-from-hell scenario in which the young flunky manages to one up her superior in some valiant way. There are no surprises save for the fact that its set in the world of high fashion invoking all the fabulousness that entails and incorporates the amazing Streep as Miranda Priestly editor-in-chief of THE fashion magazine Runway. Oozing contempt and demanding perfection Miranda at first terrorizes her new assistant Andy (Anne Hathaway) an impressionable lass who wants to be a serious journalist and has no desire to be a “Clacker.” But that lasts for all of about 10 seconds. Andy is soon wearing those Jimmy Choo stilettos and clacking across the floor with the best of them--and the better she gets at her job the more her personal life falls apart. Naturally Andy wises up and realizes life isn’t about Dolce Gabbana and the rest of the gang. Still maybe she could keep one Prada handbag. You know just to remember the experience. Streep is having a nice little resurgence this year with two spectacular performances. In Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion she plays the sunny yet heartbroken half of a singing sister act--and in Prada she’s Satan incarnate. Quite a switch but in the ever-so-capable hands of the Oscar winner it’s a flawless transition. The best part of Streep’s Miranda is all the things she doesn’t say. It’s the searing looks the languid move of the hand--and the hushed tones. This isn’t Kevin Spacey’s screaming lunatic producer in Swimming with Sharks; this is about the threatening quiet and the sacrifices Miranda makes to be lonely at the top. Hathaway as a lovely Audrey Hepburn look-a-like manages to keep her head above water but still hasn’t quite gotten rid of her Princess Diaries gee whizzed-ness. But there’s potential. In supporting roles Stanley Tucci makes a memorable appearance as Miranda’s right-hand man at the magazine doling out snarky but sage advice to our heroine while Adrian Grenier (HBO’s Entourage) plays nice as Andy’s patient boyfriend. The only other real standout star of Prada is the clothes. And the shoes. Oh and the handbags hats belts scarves and other accessories. Director David Frankel--a HBO flunky himself having directed several episodes of Entourage Sex and the City and even HBO’s hit mini-series Band of Brothers--captures this high-powered world of trend and style succinctly giving all fashionista wannabes everywhere a brief but meaningful inside peek. But the real kudos go out to costume designer Patricia Field (an Emmy winner for her work on Sex and the City) who must have had a lot of fun with Prada. She magically produces designs from Valentino (who also makes a small cameo) Donna Karan Bill Blass Galliano and of course Prada. It must be like a painter being given permission to recreate a Picasso or a Monet. Prada is predictable it’s true--but with Streep’s streaked white Cruella De Vil and all the great fashion it’s worth its weight in Versace.
Dreamer is another one of those family films--based on a true story no less--that makes you feel guilty for not liking it because it means so well. The film revolves around the Cranes who have worked on their Kentucky horse farm for generations. But gifted horseman Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) loses his love for the job when the farm hits hard times. His estranged father Pop (Kris Kristofferson) feels like his son has given up unnecessarily. Even Ben’s young daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) can’t get through to her dad. The only way this family can heal is by helping an injured horse named Sonya get ready for a seemingly impossible goal: to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Say it together: “Awww!” At least the film gets it half right in its casting. Russell is perfect as the beleaguered Ben a man who needs a little inspiration to get back on track and he thankfully never takes it over the top. Same goes for Kristofferson who is aptly crusty and unwilling to give his son an inch--that is until his granddaughter and that darned horse melt his heart. And the family resemblance is uncanny; apparently the two actors have been told quite often how much they look like each other. The one misstep here is Fanning. Yes she is an extraordinarily gifted actress for her age but Cale should have been played by a happy sunny child. The oh-so-serious Fanning doesn’t really qualify. Also Elisabeth Shue as the mom is all wrong. A horse farmer’s wife? Please. Writer-director John Gatins takes a big gamble making his directorial debut with a movie about an underdog horse. First there’s the underdog part. This year seems a bit saturated with the plot device what with films like Cinderella Man and most recently Greatest Game Ever Played. Second there’s the whole horse thing. It’s just going to be hard to top the Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit--the quintessential true horse-racing movie to beat them all. True Dreamer is based on a true story and is nicely--albeit conventionally--framed. But the film isn’t unique in any way. It’s the same feel-good family stuff we’ve been swallowing all year. See? I told you I’d feel guilty for knocking it.
Princess Diaries 2 picks up about five years after the first movie as Mia (Anne Hathaway)--no longer a 16-year-old ugly duckling but now a self-possessed college grad--is ready to assume her role as princess of Genovia. Bringing her quirky American sensibilities with her she moves into the Royal Palace with her beautiful wise grandmother Queen Clarisse (Julie Andrews)--but soon discovers she'll be ruling the little European country famous for its pears sooner than she thought when the Queen announces her retirement. It's all a tad overwhelming but the capper is that according to Genovian law in order to take the crown she also has to be married--with Genovian parliament giving her only 30 days to find a prospective groom. What you say? An arranged marriage? That's just so politically incorrect. Suddenly Mia is wading through a parade of suitors who'd all like to be her king when all she wants to do is marry for love. Of course there are also factions plotting against her in the form of Viscount Mabrey (John Rhys-Davies) a blowhard royal who wants his nephew and native Genovian the hunky Lord Nicholas Devereux (Chris Pine) to take the throne. Ah but is Lord Nicholas really as greedy for the crown as his uncle? Maybe so--until he sees how beautiful kind and ultimately capable Mia is at ruling Genovia. This could get interesting--but it doesn't not really.
Hathaway continues to exude that same fresh quality as Mia with the ever-expressive face and affinity for physical comedy. She is certainly appealing to watch on-screen yet somewhere in all that cheerful perkiness one wonders if Hathaway is just itching to be a bad girl--to really get down and dirty to play say an ice pick-wielding femme fatale or even a prostitute with a heart of gold. But alas the young actress has pigeonholed herself into these sugary-sweet roles--and it might be difficult to break out the mold once the real acting bug bites her. Julie Andrews should give Hathaway some advice--she's been there playing the Mary Poppins and Maria Von Trapps of the world. The talented British actress has never really shed that wholesome image not entirely (even her raucous semi-nude appearance in her husband Blake Edwards' S.O.B. didn't quite do it) and in Princess Diaries 2 she once again plays a woman with spunk who's very classy but also terribly proper. Oh well guess it really isn't a bad way to be. As an extra bonus Andrews also sings in the film--which to all of us fans who've followed her battle with throat problems is a true delight (even if the musical number she sings in is rather gag-producing). The rest of the PD2 cast could have been plucked from anywhere save for Heather Matarazzo who happily reprises her role as Mia's quippy best friend Lilly Moscovitz.
Director Garry Marshall is a giant sap. Most of his films while usually comedic in some fashion or another have tended towards the maudlin including The Other Sister about a mentally disabled girl who finds love (sniffle); Beaches about a woman whose best friend dies (sob!); and this year's tear-jerker Raising Helen about a jet setter who has to stop her life to raise her dead sister's kids (oh stop it already). Now it's Princess Diaries 2 a follow-up to the original syrupy feel-good comedy. To his credit Marshall is a master at the genre--and doesn't make any excuses if the eyes roll at all the sentimentality. The first Princess Diaries worked well because it was about an ordinary girl who is transformed into a fairy tale princess. With PD2 Marshall has taken the basic romantic comedy structure of a girl meeting a boy who don't get along at first but realize they love each other in the end and applied it to the princess-turned-ruler idea. The film flows smoothly even if you can tell what's going to happen every step of the way--and how refreshing it is to have a film aimed at adolescent girls that doesn't have a mean-girl clique anywhere in the vicinity. Speaking of vicinities where the heck is Genovia anyway? You can never quite tell what sort of mythical European country it's suppose to be with accents ranging from French to British to very American--but it's still awfully pretty to look at.
Hardened by years of brutal but loyal military service special ops officer Robert Scott (Val Kilmer) is assigned to find the president's apparently kidnapped daughter Laura Newton (Kristen Bell). Pairing up with his protégé Curtis (Derek Luke) Scott works diligently with a task force of presidential advisors the Secret Service the FBI and the CIA to find her and through their investigation they stumble upon a white slavery ring in the Middle East which may--or may not--have some connection to Laura's disappearance. The straightforward search-and-rescue mission is soon bogged down in political machinations and the girl's abduction starts to look even more suspicious than it did at first. In fact the mission comes to an abrupt halt altogether when the girl is supposedly found drowned from a boating accident. Scott returns to his quiet life until Curtis shows up and proves that Laura is still alive and most likely trapped in the white slavery ring. In a race against time Scott and Curtis embark on their own unofficial rescue mission--and put themselves at the center of a dangerous conspiracy that goes all the way to the top of the U.S. government.
Val Kilmer probably won't be joining Mamet's dedicated circle of players--which includes Joe Mantegna William H. Macy and Mamet's wife actress Rebecca Pidgeon--any time soon. While it's clear Kilmer took the role to work with the talented writer/director he isn't well suited to deliver "Mamet-speak"--the rapid fire delivery of terse dialogue the writer is known for--and Kilmer looks uncomfortable trying to do it. The gifted actor who can't help but bring in his own quirky sensibilities to the part still hits the nail on the head as steely resolute Scott. But the minute he starts dispensing sage advice--Mamet-style--Kilmer sticks out like a sore thumb. Same goes for Luke (Antwone Fisher) who is entirely miscast as Scott's sidekick. Others in the ensemble however handle the Mamet chores more adeptly including Macy and Ed O'Neill (yes the guy from TV's Married ... With Children) as presidential aides.
Spartan's real problem however is that it's a thriller without much thrill. Mamet's expertise is in creating scenarios within a microcosm whether it's a world of con artists (House of Games; The Spanish Prisoner) salesmen (Glengarry Glen Ross) or even showbiz (State and Main). These Mamet films are even-keeled--almost devoid of emotion. He sets up characters and actions relevant to that particular world so when characters spout lines in Mamet's distinctive style it comes off as perfectly natural. Yet with Spartan Mamet is tackling a bigger grander picture and when his style is applied to the world as a whole it doesn't work. Plus in the thriller genre the audience needs to feel invested in the characters and Mamet's distant unemotional style doesn't lend itself to sending the audience's collective hearts racing. The only poignant moment in the film belongs to Bell as the wounded daughter who just wants a little attention from Daddy and the only truly exciting moments are during her rescue. That said however Spartan proves Mamet still knows how to craft a story. Although the script is at times vague and convoluted it thankfully never falls into any of the genre's usual patterns and it throws in enough twists to keep you on your toes.