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?)
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Disney takes another whack at “Witch Mountain” having found success more than three decades ago with Escape to Witch Mountain and its sequel. Now the story has been contemporized and Bourne-ified to create what is essentially a nonstop breathless race across long winding roads and two worlds competing for superiority. As in the original two children with extraordinary powers seek to save Earth and their own planet from evil forces. They waste no time jumping into a hapless Las Vegas taxi driver’s cab ordering him to put the pedal to the metal. It soon becomes clear the secret to their quest lies somewhere in Witch Mountain a place where top-secret government activity has been going on for years. With their own alien military leaders in favor of a violent takeover and the U.S. leaders ready for confrontation these two teens Sara and Seth plus their cabbie Jack Bruno race against time to find a better solution for both of their worlds.
WHO’S IN IT?
Fast becoming Disney’s go-to guy Dwayne Johnson (formerly known as The Rock) follows up his hit football comedy The Game Plan with another family-oriented tale in which he again gets upstaged by kids. His Jack Bruno proves the perfect foil this time as he gets to be funny cynical commanding and heroic all in the course of about 97 minutes. As events careen out of his control Johnson grows increasingly exasperated and that’s part of the fun. As Sara a smart extraterrestrial teen Anna-Sophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) is ideally cast bringing a nice believability to the role without falling into stereotypes. Seth is well played but with one-note earnestness by Alexander Ludwig who still comes off a little too robotic at times. As an astrophysicist who gets caught up in the trio’s predicament Carla Gugino is a delight. Lead among the antagonists is Irish actor Ciaran Hinds who is properly mean and heartless when it comes to aliens of any stripe. Director Garry Marshall has an amusing cameo as a self-styled UFO expert and there are brief but welcome appearances by the all-grown-up Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann who played the ‘70s incarnation of the alien kids in the earlier films. Richards’ face-to-face meeting with Robb is especially sweet.
The filmmakers wisely keep the retro tone of the book and earlier films while using state-of-the-art visual effects and movie magic. A lot of sci-fi movies have come along since Escape to Witch Mountain premiered in 1975 – see Star Wars Close Encounters and E.T. And while Witch Mountain circa 2009 won’t do anything to make us forget those classics it’s good fun -- like welcoming back an old friend.
There’s no complexity in sight and the story isn’t given a lot of time to breathe. We barely get to know Jack Bruno before the kids have hijacked his cab and the whirlwind begins. A little more exposition and plot development would have been welcomed for those with an attention span beyond two minutes.
There are lots of first-rate action set pieces including a collision with a train and a chase through a Vegas casino but the climactic spaceship battle can’t be topped. Kids are going to eat this sequence up.
After showing Jack her alien prowess for the first time by making various items in his cab float in mid-air Sara says “you humans don’t move objects because you don’t develop your full brain capacity”. Bruno replies “No I don’t do it because it’s kind of creepy.”
Crystal Lake. Dumb kids in the woods. Sex drugs booze. A hulking maniac in a hockey mask wielding a machete. Yeah that about sums it up.
Are you kidding? The new Jason Derek Mears probably fares best among the actors because he doesn’t have a single word of dialogue. Everyone else unfortunate enough to stumble in front of the camera – Jared Padalecki Amanda Righetti Danielle Panabaker Travis Van Winkle – is basically fodder for the slaughter. Some of them get naked. Most of them get dead. Some die more gorily than others. No one dies quickly enough. Having previously (and woefully) directed the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre helmer Marcus Nispel does his best – and worst – to resurrect yet another popular horror franchise from the past. He also adds absolutely nothing new to the formula. Quite frankly anyone could’ve directed this film. Judging by the results anyone did. This is the 12th Friday the 13th film for those keeping score at home and with any luck it’ll be the last. Of course it won’t be. But we can always hope.
Set in 1976 an arrogant doofus--who loves booze partying and women--buys an underdog professional basketball team and basically runs it into the ground until he is inspired to take his rag-tag team all the way to the NBA. Sound familiar? Semi-Pro is pretty much a mixture of every other Will Ferrell movie. He plays Jackie Moon a one-hit wonder who buys the Flint Michigan Tropics off the proceeds of his hit song “Love Me Sexy.” and tries to coach them even playing on the team. But he ends up dragging them down to last place with his promotional antics. And when the wild and crazy ABA basketball league--known for its slam dunk contests--is about to merge with the all-powerful NBA the Tropics only have one shot to make the cut. Can they pull themselves together in time? This is an underdog sports movie after all. It’s really the same old Will Ferrell shtick in Semi-Pro. Sometimes it’s hilarious but unfortunately after Anchorman Kicking & Screaming Talladega Nights and Blades of Glory much of it is rehash. Tiresome rehash. Nevertheless Ferrell has surrounded himself with another eclectic crew mixing some old favorites with new faces: old Ferrell cronies include David Koechner as the ABA commissioner and Will Arnett as a Tropics sports announcer while the newbies include Andre Benjamin as Clarence “Coffee” Black the Tropics star player and Woody Harrelson as Ed Monix a veteran player Moon brings in to help the team. Think of Monix as Bull Durham’s Crash Davis who once played in the show but has been demoted to the B leagues. Oddly enough Harrelson actually brings some dignity to the otherwise silly proceedings. Veteran executive producer Kent Alterman who has overseen such diverse films as Balls of Fury and Little Children helms his first feature film with Semi-Pro--and that’s basically how the film comes off: semi-professional. Alterman probably figured he only had to point and shoot which is mostly the case and doesn’t do anything above and beyond. The real effort comes from the script written by comedy veteran Scot Armstrong (Old School Starsky & Hutch). The first half of the film is pure Will Ferrell non sequitur fodder--beginning with Moon singing his hit “Love Me Sexy” (lyrics also included is “Lick Me Sexy” and “Hump Me Sexy”) and the obligatory scene of Moon sitting around with his buddies saying “nutty things because they’re not true.” Then there’s the bear wrestling scene. Ferrell must have a thing for the big furry animals (remember the bear pit in Anchorman?) Unfortunately the outrageousness lessens in the second half of the film becoming your straight forward underdog movie. If Semi-Pro is a huge hit Ferrell won't stop making these movies; but if it falls flat maybe he'll think of ways to reinvent himself. One can only hope.
Based on the best-selling book of the same name Fast Food Nation has three intertwined stories revolving around the fast food industry. Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) is a corporate marketing guy assigned to put a positive spin on the bad news that fecal traces has been found in the meat. He goes to the meat factory to investigate and doesn’t like what he sees but no one offers him a viable solution. Then there’s Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) Mexican immigrants who cross the border illegally. The only job they can get is in the meat factory. She bears with demeaning sexual advances while he faces the unhealthy and dangerous conditions to try for the American Dream. Finally we meet Amber (Ashley Johnson) who works in a local franchise. She’s just a high school girl trying to pay for her car insurance. This isn’t her future but it dominates her present. The corporate story is a comedy about ineffective management and media spin. The immigrants’ story is a hard drama about a bad life. Amber’s story straddles both lines--a slacker teen comedy but also introspective about what the job is doing to her soul. It may be no secret these days but it’s still fascinating. There is plenty of juicy dialogue for actors to sink their teeth into (pun intended). Kinnear plays the corporate suit as lovably as possible. He’s the put-upon business cog similar to his characters in The Matador and Little Miss Sunshine but funnier because it’s the system that’s futile not his own dreams. Valderrama has a smaller part just supporting his wife going through a horrible life with noble determination. Moreno is as heartbreaking as she was in her Oscar-nominated performance in Maria Full of Grace. You sense so much potential in her and she’s stuck in the factory demeaned by sexual harassment and unable to save her sister from succumbing to it. She adds new colors of despair to the immigrant experience. Johnson is careful not to make her character too wise beyond her years. She really is just a normal kid. High school sucks so do counter jobs. It’s not about being unique just relatable. Cameos stand out too. Ethan Hawke plays the coolest uncle ever. He comes to town for two scenes spouts off his cool-uncle advice and then leaves. Even though he’s a self-confessed loser he’s convincing. And he buys her beer. Bruce Willis gives a speech on the meat industry with his David Addison smirk while chomping into a burger. We’re sold. Director Richard Linklater does a good job keeping the comedy and drama balanced. He cuts back and forth between stories at sensible intervals. Towards the end Greg Kinnear disappears for a long time but Ashley Johnson’s story beefs up to compensate. Showing the inner workings of the meat factory is pretty powerful. Cow guts falling out and bodies mangled by machinery are not fun things to watch but they are important to remember. It’s all up there on the screen but not gratuitous—and doesn’t have to ruin meat forever. Just think how all foods have processes that we don’t see and still taste good. There are plenty of scenes in which the characters are talking a real Linklater specialty (Before Sunset Before Sunrise for example). Whether they’re talking about meat or minimum wage jobs or life ambitions the conversations have a catchy flow. The satire of corporate America and slacker lifestyles juxtaposed against the drama of immigrant life makes Fast Food Nation both ridiculously funny and appropriately uncomfortable.
Tom Hanks stars as the charming but fiendishly eccentric Goldthwait Higginson Dorr III Ph.D.--a Southern gentleman and expert thief who masterminds a casino heist with a motley crew of goofy crooks. Setting up operations at the boarding house of the widowed Baptist-loving sassy Mrs. Munson (Irma P. Hall) Dorr convinces the older lady that he requires her cellar for his Renaissance-period music ensemble to practice. The band is in actuality his criminal team which plans to use the space to dig a tunnel into a riverboat casino and rob its safe. But with this oddball crew comprised of the hip-hop stylin' Gawain (Marlon Wayans) a janitor at the casino; ex-hippie and Irritable Bowel Syndrome sufferer Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons); The General (Tzi Ma) a stoic chain smoking tunneling pro; and Lump (Ryan Hurst) an ex-football player whose brains are in short order problems are bound to arise. God-fearing Southern woman Mrs. Munson is initially charmed (after all they're not playing that "hippity-hoppity" music as she calls it) but once she catches wind of their scheme the dastardly characters must find a way to dispose of her. But how?
Stepping in the shoes of the great Guinness who played an almost Phantom of the Opera version of the English gallant Hanks creates an over-the-top Southerner who's part William Faulkner part Colonel Sanders. An eloquent Edgar Allen Poe-quoting dandy Hanks wears antebellum all-white and speaks with antiquated turns of phrase that are supposed to be alternately appealing and anachronistically funny. Supposed to be. Though under the direction of Joel Coen who can wring an effortless inspired verbose Kentucky character out of George Clooney in O Brother Where Art Thou? Hanks' oddities are obvious at every turn. The performance is strained--right down to his goofy laugh--and unlike Guinness we never feel Dorr's underlying evil the element that made the original character so deliciously funny. This is a darkly comic character Hanks manages to make cute. The rest of the crew fares little better with the talented Wayans resting on easy "bust a cap in yo' ass" ghetto humor and Simmons' suffering one too many unfunny times from a bout with IBS (since when did the Coens resort to bathroom humor?). Hall is the saving grace here from back-talking her charges with gusto to giving a hilarious speech about the depraved elements of "hippity-hoppity music" to mistaking Dorr's dubious title of Ph.D. as "like Elmer Fudd?" she's a terrific comic foil. Too bad the cast didn't have enough stimulating material to bounce off her.
The Coen brothers usually work expertly with caricatures carefully balancing cartoonish madcap with people we actually care about. From Nicolas Cage's brilliant Hy in Raising Arizona to Jeff Bridges's pot-smoking The Dude in The Big Lebowski to Clooney in the aforementioned O Brother they're the masters of broad. Here however they make a misstep in both casting Hanks (Billy Bob Thornton would have been more appropriate) and to a larger extent messing with a movie that didn't need messing. The original 1955 version (directed by Alexander Mackendrick and also starring Peter Sellers) is darker than the Coens' take which relies more on slapstick and lunacy. Nevertheless the picture is technically gorgeous with cinematographer Roger Deakins creating a perfectly sunny Southern town mixed with a gothic underbelly of doom and tuned to an enlivened Gospel music score. And there are funny bits for sure played out in that precise unique Coen rhythm but given their past and potential genius the Coens are certainly capable of better. The Ladykillers lacks what we've come to know them for--a killer comic instinct.
Dr. Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife Ruth (Sissy Spacek) are throwing a summer barbecue at which their lone prodigy Frank (Nick Stahl) is proudly showing off his summer romance. Ruth vehemently disapproves: Natalie (Marisa Tomei) is an older single mother of two who is not quite divorced from the dark abusive Richard Strout (William Mapother) whose family runs their town of Camden Maine. For Frank Natalie is someone to keep the pipes greased before he heads off to study architecture at graduate school in the fall. Maybe. Frank is thinking of getting serious with Natalie and ditching school if Natalie would have him but there's that not quite ex-husband to deal with. The not quite ex-husband ends up killing Frank (this is supposed to be a plot twist but is the only action in the first two hours of the movie) which leads to much soul searching for Matt and Ruth--the raison d'etre of the movie.
With all due respect to Spacek who's been receiving a lot of Oscar buzz for her turn it's really Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty Wilde The Patriot) who gives the most outstanding astonishing performance in this film. Matt's stilted missteps at each and every turn are so human so real you empathize with the pain he's feeling while you cringe at his every inappropriate action. An Academy win for Wilkinson seems more than merited though likely won't happen. Marisa Tomei is as good as she's ever been in the role of Frank's lover Natalie. The emotional tug-of-war in her relationship with Nick is clear on her face and the distress of never getting Ruth's approval is deafening. Spacek has a hard time claiming even the second-best performance of the film but she is compelling as Ruth the kind-hearted high school teacher who's become more closed and unforgiving than she ever imagined. You can see Spacek shutting down as her world crumbles around her. William Mapother and Nick Stahl do fine jobs with their (relatively) limited characters especially Mapother who is sufficiently creepy and desperate as Natalie's husband.
An actor turned director Todd Field wastes the fine performances in his debut film. Field seemingly likes to impart significance in the mundane moments of real life which works only sporadically. Field's direction is similar to Matt's reaction to his son's death: all of his actions seem stiff and mannered and when he does do something appropriate it's a complete accident. Worse Field leaves no room for character development only letting the characters descend further and further into despair ultimately turning the film into an art house Death Wish. (With apologies to Charles Bronson.) Given the supposed strength of the Maine proletariat it would have nice to see Matt and Ruth Fowler struggle against their evil inclinations before giving in so completely. Under Field's helming the film flounders at inopportune moments rendering the story utterly meaningless.