“REAL STEEL” (2011) Review

“REAL STEEL” (2011) Review

Every once in a while, I would come across one of those movies in which I have to be forced to watch . . . against my will. This happened with Matthew Vaughn’s 2007 comedy-fantasy “STARDUST”. And it happened again with the 2008 movie, “SPEED RACER”. Since I ended up enjoying both movies, I finally allowed a member of my family to talk me into seeing the recent Disney movie, “REAL STEEL”

Partially based upon Richard Matheson’s 1956 short story called “Steel”, the movie told the story of a struggling promoter of boxing robots named Charlie Kenton in the year 2020. After his own boxing robot bites the dust in a match with bull owned by a promoter to whom he owns money, Charlie finds himself saddled with Max, an 11 year-old son he had conceived with an ex-girlfriend that recently passed away. The two stumbles across a discarded robot, whom they hope will rise to the top of the robotic boxing world. Along the way, Charlie and Max manage to learn about each other before the latter ends up in the custody of his aunt Debra and her husband, Marvin.

I understand that the majority of “REAL STEEL” was filmed in Michigan. I find this rather odd, considering that most of the movie was set in Texas. Oh well. The movie did a pretty good job of creating an atmosphere similar to eastern and central Texas, thanks to Mauro Fiore’s rich and colorful photograph. Unfortunately, the cast failed to convey the same atmosphere, considering that only one used a Texan accent.

But “REAL STEEL” is not about Texas. It is about the sport of boxing in which the contestants are no longer humans, but robots. Despite the fact that the movie is somewhat based upon a short story that also served as the basis of a“TWILIGHT ZONE” episode. What can I say? The movie failed to impress me. Boxing robots? Perhaps this story theme would have worked in the STAR TREK universe or even in that “TWILIGHT ZONE” episode. But this movie did not work for me. I simply could not find it within myself to care about the characters or whether the main protagonists’ robot, Atom, would prevail.

One of my problems with “REAL STEEL” was screenwriter John Gatins’ failure to make me care about Atom. The robot seemed more like a slightly contrived plot device created to manipulate tears and compassion toward it. If this movie had been about a human boxer, an android with strong human characteristics (think Data in “STAR TREK: NEXT GENERATION”), or in the case of the “TWILIGHT ZONE” episode – about a human pretending to be a robot; perhaps I could have felt some sympathy or any kind of emotion toward it, instead of sheer boredom.

As for the story regarding Charlie and Max’s relationship, I found it very unoriginal and equally manipulative. This estranged parent-child plot line has been done to death in many movies either directed or produced by Steven Spielberg. By the way, “REAL STEEL” was released by DreamWorks, Spielberg’s production company. From a technical perspective, “REAL STEEL” seemed like a well made movie. But I found it so unoriginal – despite the premise of boxing robots – and emotionally manipulative that it occurred to me that I may never warm up to it.

Like the movie’s plot and production, the cast of “REAL STEEL” seemed technically on spot. I can honestly say that I could not spot a bad performance from the cast. Unfortunately, only two or three performances impressed me. One of them did not come from Hugh Jackman. Charlie Kenton was not the first slightly unsympathetic character he has portrayed. But his Charlie struck me as too much of a cliché for me to really care about. Even worse, Jackman portrayed a Texan with a Brooklyn (or New Jersey?) accent. On the other hand Kevin Durand managed to utilize a Texan accent. He portrayed a sports promoter named Ricky, to whom Charlie owned money. And I was not impressed. It was not Durand’s fault. The poor man found himself stuck with a character that was nothing more than a second-rate, one-dimensional villain. Anthony Mackie was clearly wasted as Finn, another sports promoter and Charlie’s friend. He gave it his best, but the character of Finn never struck me as interesting. And poor James Rehborn looked as if he could barely generate any interest in his character, the husband of Max’s aunt.

But there were performances that managed to impress me. Dakota Goyo gave a savy performance as Charlie’s estranged son, Max. Thankfully, he did not spend most of his screen time acting like many other petulant children, noisily resentful of being in the company of an estranged parent figure. Thanks to Gatins’ script and Goyo’s performance, Max struck me not only a lot more mature than his father; but also a far cry from being a cliché. I could say the same for Hope Davis’ portrayal of Max’s aunt Debra. Gatins could have easily written her character as a prim and cold-eye parental figure that would drive Max to his father’s arms. But Davis had the good luck to portray a warm and intelligent woman, whose desire to raise Max had more to do with love than cold responsibility to a blood relative. Evangeline Lilly had come a long way from her first season on “LOST”, seven years ago. I have never viewed her as a terrible actress. But I found her acting skills rather mediocre. Like I said, she has come a long way. Her performance in“REAL STEEL” made it apparent that she has become a solid and competent actress. In fact, I found her portrayal of Charlie’s childhood friend and potential love interest, Bailey Tallet, to be a breath of fresh air. Her Bailey was frank, emotional, witty and not tainted by any clichés.

But in the end, neither the performances of Goyo, Hope, and Lilly; along with Fiore’s photography could save “REAL STEEL”. At least not for me. The movie did turn out to be a hit. And a good number of critics actually enjoyed the film. The problem for me was that I found it difficult to share their opinions. Who knows? Perhaps one day I might change my mind.

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“DATE NIGHT” (2010) Review

“DATE NIGHT” (2010) Review

After watching the new comedy, ”DATE NIGHT”, I found myself amazed that its two stars – Steve Carell and Tina Fey – had never worked together. At least not before this movie. Both managed to become stars within the last five years. Both possessed a wry, yet off-the-world sense of humor that made their respective television series successful. So, why did it take them so long to work together? 

You know what? Who cares? I should thank my lucky stars that Carell and Fey had finally decided to co-star in this hilarious comedy. Directed by Shawn Levy, ”DATE NIGHT” told the story of a suburban couple named Phil and Claire Foster, suffering from a mid-life crisis in their marriage. They decided to renew their romantic juices by attending a new, upscale restaurant in Manhattan. When they failed to get a table on their own, the Fosters decide to pretend to be another couple named Tripplehorn that failed to appear for their reservation. The two are eventually mistaken as the Tripplehorns by a pair of corrupt police detectives, working for a local mobster. The detectives believed that the Fosters have a small computer flash drive that contains information on a politician with connections to the mobster. Hilarity ensued as the Fosters struggled to stay alive and get their hands on the flash drive in order to clear their names.

The main reason I seemed to be in shock over Steve Carell and Tina Fey is because I believe they had managed to work very well, together. Who am I kidding? While watching ”DATE NIGHT”, I felt as if I had stumbled across a dynamic new screen team. How these two managed not to work together for so many years in the past seemed like a great mystery. The miraculous thing about Carell and Fey’s screen chemistry is not only did their styles merged into comedy magic, both actors-comics did an excellent job in the movie’s one dramatic scene in which their characters – Phil and Claire – expressed pent-up frustrations over the pressures of family life and the diminishing romance in their marriage.

Carell and Fey were ably supported by solid performances from the rest of the cast. Mark Wahlberg was both sexy and humorous as Holbrooke Gran, former intelligence agent-turned-security expert that happened to be a former client of Claire’s. Taraji P. Henson gave a richly sardonic performance as N.Y.P.D. Detective Arroyo, whose help the Fosters tried to recruit. Common and Jimmi Simpson gave subtle, yet sinister performances as Detectives Collins and Armstrong, the corrupt detectives working for a local gangster named Joe Miletto. Ray Liotta gave his usual, hypertensive performance as local mob boss, Miletto. Aside from Carell and Fey, the real laughs also came from a hilarious William Fitchner as the corrupt and perverse District Attorney Frank Crenshaw, whose perversity turned out to be the movie’s catalyst. J.B. Smoove was hysterical as a Manhattan cab driver who inadvertently got drawn into a high speed chase involving the Fosters, the two corrupt detectives and the police. But James Franco and Mila Kunis were just as hilarious as the Tripplehorns, a pair of married low-life criminals whose restaurant reservations had been taken by the Fosters.

Another aspect of ”DATE NIGHT” that I enjoyed so much was the film’s screenplay written by Josh Klausner. Not only did I find it funny, but also well-written with plenty of strong characterizations. Klausner took a common malaise for many married couples and created a hilarious, yet exciting action-adventure. The plot touched upon a good number of topics – crime, sex, police corruption, political corruption, computer technology, love and marriage. And not only did Levy utilized his talented cast and Klausner’s script with great skill, he also provided the movie with sight gags that left me in stitches. One such scene involved the Fosters’ initial escape from the corrupt detectives at a Central Park boathouse. Another featured the Fosters’ attempt to implicate District Attorney Crenshaw at one of Miletto’s local whorehouses.

I am trying to recall a flaw or two that I may have spotted in the movie. If I must be frank, I cannot think of one at the moment. If anyone can recall one, please let me know. Regardless of whether there are any flaws I may have overlooked,”DATE NIGHT” turned out to be one of the funniest movies I have seen in recent years. More importantly, it just might serve as the beginning of a hilarious screen team in the form of Steve Carell and Tina Fey.