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?)
Gavin O’Connor’s (Miracle Pride and Glory) stirring new drama Warrior is an underdog tale set in the nascent sport of Mixed Martial Arts fighting. In its relatively short life MMA has yet to inspire much quality cinema of note. It now has its Rocky.
Warrior’s twist on the traditional underdog formula is to provide us with dual protagonists: the fightin’ Conlon brothers Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy). Neither have spoken to each other since the dissolution of the parents’ marriage fourteen years earlier. Both of late have fallen on hard times. Tommy is an Iraq war veteran who has turned to pills and booze since returning from abroad; Brendan is a high school science teacher and devoted family man victimized by the financial crisis. Circumstances compel them both to seek salvation in the fight game.
Conveniently enough the opportunity of a lifetime arrives in the form of Sparta a brand-new winner-take-all MMA tournament that awards its champion a cool $5 million – more than enough for Brendan to save his house from foreclosure or for Tommy to make good on his pledge to provide for the family of a friend killed in Iraq. By this point we know for certain that fate has determined Brendan and Tommy will meet in the final and we know for certain how utterly ridiculous this scenario is. And yet we accept it because by this point Warrior already has us in its corner.
The origins of the brothers’ enmity are ultimately traced to their father Paddy (Nick Nolte) a monstrous alcoholic whose abusiveness led their mother and Tommy to flee fourteen years prior. Brendan stayed behind and Tommy never forgave him for it. When we see Paddy he’s broken-down husk of a man God-fearing and 1000 days sober his face creased with shame and regret. Neither son can stand the sight of their old man but Tommy in need of someone to train him for the tournament reluctantly enlists his father’s help. Paddy eyeing a last chance at redemption enthusiastically complies.
Cue the training montage. A fighter rising from obscurity to the upper echelons in his sport within a matter of weeks is hard to swallow; when two fighters do it it’s a borderline insult to the sport. MMA aficionados might blanch at watching Tommy and Brendan gain one unlikely win after another; more likely they’ll be too absorbed by the action to care. It helps that Hardy and Edgerton both look the part and are both skilled enough at their craft to lend the film’s many brutal fight scenes a distinct realism. It helps even more that the story and the actors' stellar performances have us firmly aligned with their goals.
O’Conner a veteran of the genre deploys the underdog tropes at his disposal freely but assiduously crafting a tale that is unabashedly far-fetched but grounded in characters who are intensely appealing and who feel authentic. The storytelling is clumsy at times – that Nolte’s character listens to a book-on-tape of Moby Dick throughout the film feels particularly heavy-handed – but Warrior wisely steers clear of bombastic speeches or cloying sentiment.
Warrior’s climactic final fight in which the estranged brothers at last meet in the ring is both gut- and heart-wrenching. When the film’s suitably happy ending does eventually arrive the film gives way ever-so-briefly to hokeyness. But after what these kids have gone through you can forgive them for getting a little emotional.
Summer 2011 has been solid, if unspectacular – both for us moviegoers and for “them,” the studios. We've had enjoyable, quality-leaning popcorn fare like X-Men, Thor and Super 8 – and there's still hope for Cowboys & Aliens and Harry Potter, among others. Meanwhile, “they” have had dependable, albeit predictably subpar, blockbusters in Pirates 4 and The Hangover Part II, with shoo-ins like Transformers, Zookeeper and Captain America yet to come. It's all rather ho-hum in the end – and worth raising the question: With summer 2012's almost weekly barrage of event movies and guaranteed megahits, is summer 2011 the appetizer to its entree (er, the iPhone 4GS to its iPhone 5)? Here's why we ask.
Superheroes The Dark Knight Rises: Add up all the excitement over every movie this summer, and it still wouldn't equal that of the Dark Knight sequel, more than a year before its release. Even a minor casting tidbit can generate major traffic for movie sites and send the twitters atwitter – and such immeasurable buzz is how excitement is gauged these days. It's just part of what makes The Dark Knight Rises the most anticipated movie of next summer, if not all of 2012. (7/20/12) The Amazing Spider-Man: The completely overhauled franchise seems a risky proposition for Sony/Columbia: The budget isn't really changing all that much, but the names (Andrew Garfield's isn't exactly household) and storyline are, with the focus shifted toward Peter Parker's younger days. Still, moviegoers aren't going to turn down a superhero flick of this magnitude during summertime, and it's not like we're talking about a Spider-Man musical or something. (7/3/12) The Avengers: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk and others from the Marvel universe – with Geekus Christ himself, Joss Whedon, behind it all? It's orgasmic for comic-book nerds, sure, but make no mistake: Even the most casual moviegoers have been excited since the announcement of this Ocean's Eleven of superheroes. Not bad for the FIRST. MOVIE. OF. THE. SUMMER! (5/4/12) Adaptations Battleship: We're a little uneasy about the whole board-game-adaptation thing, but Monopoly: From Boardwalk to Broke this isn't. It's Peter Berg directing, a $200 million budget, and, well, battleship scenes. Plus, we get to see Rihanna try to act, Brooklyn Decker try to act again, and female moviegoers try not to squirm at the sight of Taylor Kitsch and Alexander Skarsgard in their tight naval uniforms – and perhaps out of their tight naval uniforms. (5/18/12) Dark Shadows: Another Burton-Depp-Bonham Carter collabo, another roughly billion dollars for the studio. But Warner Bros. isn't alone in its rabid anticipation: Fans have more than approved the gothic-even-in-PG-movies Burton for this gig, an adaptation of the dark 1960s soap of the same name that deals with vampires, of the non-Twilight ilk. With Depp as the beloved bloodluster Barnabas Collins and Seth Grahame-Smith, who knows a thing or two about making bloodplay fun (read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), responsible for the script, there's high hopes for Shadows – and confidence from fans. (5/11/12) Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: It's hard to believe that it's been almost 150 years since Abe Lincoln's assassination, and we're seeing a movie about his days as a vampire hunter before his biopic; at this point, it's also more exciting. Based on Seth Grahame-Smith's bizarro Lincoln novel of the same name (he also co-adapted the screenplay), Vampire Hunter looks to be one of the most original – even though its story isn't – offerings of the crowded season; it's certainly got the most self-explanatory title. Expect bloody, gory fun. Lots of it. (6/22/12) Snow White and the Huntsman: The first of roughly 200 opportunistic modern-day takes on the ol' Grimm bros fairy tale (we can thank Tim Burton' Alice in Wonderland for the oh-so-slight uptick in greenlit fairytale movies) coming your way, Huntsman promises to be the darkest of the bunch – you know, death, revenge and stuff. And while that's not necessarily quite enough for us to get overly excited, Universal had millions at “Snow W--”. The fact that it stars Kristen Stewart in the title role is icing. (6/1/12) ="">
="">="">Animation Madagascar 3: All the main players are back for the third installment in this DreamWorks cash cow, and there's no reason to think fans' excitement – or the movie's resultant box office – will wane whatsoever. One little twist, however (and frankly, one of the weirder indie-mainstream marriages in ages), that those who don't fall in the target demographic might find interesting: Noah Baumbach, of angsty, artsy drmedies like The Squid and the Whale, wrote the screenplay! (6/8/12) Brave: There's an all-encompassing keyword attached to Brave – one that piques excitement, promises quality and Oscar nominations, and instantly drums up hundreds of millions of virtual dollars at the box office: Pixar. The studio's first fairy tale epic promises darker undertones than we're used to seeing, and tells the story of a Scottish warrior heroine. And did we mention it's Pixar? (6/22/12) Ice Age: Continental Drift: More of the same from this verrrrry outdated (get it? Ice Age? Sorry.) franchise, with some J. Lo-voicing action thrown in, because she was relevant again when this thing was filming. Ice Age might not seem worthy of a mention on our list – not many people penciled it in to their iPhone calendars when it was announced a couple years ago – but for its built-in blockbuster powers, we had to. Oh, and it's in 3-D! Don't see much of that very much these days. (7/13/12) Sequels* The Bourne Legacy: It lost Damon and Greengrass, but the Bourne franchise soldiers on with truly two of the most sensible replacements imaginable: Oscar nominees Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) and Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) as star and director, respectively. That is just about the least amount of drop-off conceivable after losing the aforementioned titans – and they may even bring something to the table that Damon and Greengrass couldn't. Be excited. (8/3/12) MIB 3: This could best be summed up thusly: No one (except perhaps Columbia Studios and Will Smith's team of accountants) was itching for a third Men in Black installment, especially a full decade after the previous MIB – but the relative lukewarm excitement towards it trumps the hell out of any of this summer's threequels (or fourquels or fivequels). Granted, about 75 percent of said lukewarm excitement is due to the fact Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement is in it, but still. (5/25/12) *Also see: The Dark Knight Rises, Madagascar 3 and Ice Age: Continental Drift
Miscellaneous The Dictator: No one knows what this thing is about – Paramount's synopsis doesn't provide much insight: “the story of a heroic dictator who risked his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed” – and that's rather refreshing. We do know that it re-teams star Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles (oh, and Megan Fox), so it's fair to expect something controversial and envelope-pushing, something between R-rated sociopolitical satire and, well, Borat. And that's nice to see nestled between superhero movies. (5/11/12) Ted: Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane brings his boundary-pushing brand of humor to the big screen for the first time as writer, director and voice star of Ted. In the live action/CG-animated comedy, he tells the story of John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), a grown man who must deal with the cherished teddy bear who came to life as the result of a childhood wish…and has refused to leave his side ever since. If that all sounds press release-y, it should. But we're sold. (7/13/12) Prometheus: What started as a quasi-prequel to Ridley Scott's Alien turned into ... something else. The plot is being kept heavily under wraps, but everything that is known (i.e., a cast including Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender; a script co-written by Lost's Damon Lindelof; and Scott's penchant for BIG movies) is confidence-inspiring. The probability that Prometheus is at least heavy on outsize sci-fi-ness only helps. (6/8/12) Also... What To Expect When You're Expecting: It's been a New York Times bestseller for almost three decades now – why NOT make it into a movie?! Who cares if it's essentially an instructional book?! Cameron Diaz and the recently cast J. Lo star in what is more or less a Mother's Day gift and a male punishment. (5/11/12) Rock of Ages: The Tom Cruise-starring musical you keep hearing about, based on the Broadway hit of the same name and directed by Adam Shankman, who did the same thing with 2007's Hairspray. It's Tom Cruise's last shot at a return to pre-couch-jump stardom. 'Til Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol. (6/1/12) I Hate You, Dad: The obligatory summer “comedy” from truly the most consistent box office star in the world, Adam Sandler. Should be eh-mazing, again. (6/15/12) Jack the Giant Killer: The Usual Suspects team of Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie reunite for this quasi-take on Jack and the Beanstalk. Which means it'll probably be different from their last collaboration, Valkyrie. Which means it'll probably be good. (6/15/12) Here Comes the Boom: See I Hate You, Dad, above, and replace “Adam Sandler” with “Kevin James.” And subtract “the most consistent box office star in the world.” (7/27/12) Total Recall: This one exciting for us fans of the somewhat unappreciated Schwarzenegger sci-fi original. Colin Farrell plays the Ahnold part, with Underworld's Len Wiseman directing. As for the tri-boobed prostitute, we have a lot of casting ideas, but that's a whole other feature. (8/3/12) G.I. Joe 2: Cobra Strikes: The Rock slides into this mother of all unwarranted sequels – from the guy who directed the mother of all unwarranted biopics, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. And it'll still be a blockbuster! (8/10/12) Southern Rivals: The blockbusterist comedy is saved for last in summer '12. Two of the genre's biggest names, Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, play political enemies in this one. It remains to be seen what kind of effect this will have on the presidential election a few months later. (8/10/12) The Expendables 2: Sly Stallone won't be returning to the director's chair for this one. Everything else is seemingly identical to the original – maybe even the plot. (8/17/12) ="">
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Claire is an attractive CIA operative and Ray is an M16 agent who simultaneously leave their Governmental spy activities in the dust to try and profit from a battle between two rival multi-national corporations both trying to launch a new product that will transform the world and make billions. Their goal is to secure the top-secret formula and get a patent before they are outsmarted. While their respective egomaniacal CEOs engage in an unending battle of wills and one-upmanship Claire and Ray start out conning and playing one another in a clever game of industrial espionage that is even more complicated due to their own long-term romantic relationship.
WHO’S IN IT?
Reuniting Closer co-stars Julia Roberts (as Claire) and Clive Owen (as Ray) turns out to be an inspired idea. They turn out to be the perfect pair oozing movie-star charm and electricity in this elaborate con-game that might have been the kind of thing Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant might have made in the '60s (in fact they did in Charade). Roberts with that infamous hairstyle back the way we like it and Owen looking great in sunglasses prove they have what it takes to navigate us through this ultra-complex plot in which no one is sure who they can trust at any given moment. They play it all in high style and the wit just flows as the story skirts back and forth during the period of five years. The supporting cast is well-chosen with juicy roles for Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti (out of their John Adams duds) as the two CEOs going for each other’s throats. Giamatti who sometimes has a tendency to overdo it is especially slimy here and great fun to watch.
Big-star studio movies today rarely take risks and often talk down to the audience but in Duplicity writer/director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) has crafted a complicated con-comedy that requires complete attention at all times just to keep up with the dense plot’s twists and turns. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a New York Times crossword puzzle and Gilroy and his top-drawer production team deliver a glossy beautiful-looking film that’s easy on the eyes hitting locations from Dubai to Rome to New York City.
Like any good puzzle it sometimes can be frustrating putting it all together and Gilroy’s habit of taking us back in time and then inching forward gets a little confusing even with the on-screen chyron pointing out where we are at any given moment. Stick with it though and you will be well-rewarded.
A scene near the end where the formula must be found scanned and faxed in a matter of minutes is sweat-inducing edge-of-your-seat moviemaking and it provides the ultimate opportunity for Roberts and Owen to take the “con” to the next level. Another where Roberts uses a thong to try and trick Owen into admitting an affair he never had is also priceless and gets right to the heart of the game-playing.
GO OUT AND GET POPCORN WHEN ...
Never. Stock up during the coming attractions. If you miss a moment of this entertaining romp you might never figure it all out.