Real Steel

There is a reason that boxing movies have worked from the beginning of film history. The drama in the ring is heightened by events that occur outside of the ring, and a well planned climax can touch the emotions of even the most cynical of viewers. I saw the teaser trailer for this a year ago and I thought it looked like fun, even though it also looks a bit iffy due to the reliance on CGI robots. There were a lot of people who shook their heads and said that the movie world had hit bottom with a movie based on “Rock um, Sock um Robots”. Sorry you fools, that movie was made years ago, and it was called RoboJox. Five years ago we got the first Transformers movie and it is basically the same thing. When I saw that Hugh Jackman was starring in this movie, I knew it was not just going to be a special effects extravaganza. You don’t need a movie star to sell a battling robots movie. This had to be something more, and it is.

The title credits mention that the film is based on a story by Richard Matheson, well known for his work on the Twilight Zone and best known for writing the novel “I Am Legend”, which has been made into a movie three times so far. In fact, on the original Twilight Zone, Lee Marvin starred in an episode titled “Steel”, from Richard Matheson, that told the story of a guy with a fighting robot, who has to step in and pretend to be a robot to stay in the fight game. Many of the same ideas are in this film, but it would be unrealistic to imagine Hugh Jackman passing himself off as a robot with the massive creations featured with todays special effects. So, instead he is a robot fighting “trainer”, who has to find a way to make his robot a winner, using his own skills instead of computer programmed strategies. The question is, where can he get the heart to do this and win, when he is basically a broken loser in the first place? This is where the story heads off in a direction that marks this as a drama, rather than just a Science Fiction special effects film. Jackman’s character Charlie, has a son that he abandoned eleven years ago, and now he has to work out custody issues with the sister of the boy’s dead mother. The kid, “Max”, is a bright but resentful pre-teen and the rapprochement between father and son is the crux of the movie, not the fight game.

If you see the second trailer, you know how the story is going to play out. All you have to do is know that the kid is involved and you have a pretty clear idea of what is coming. There are virtually NO surprises in the movie. It follows the path of least resistance right up to the end. Yet, as I have said, there is a reason that boxing movies have worked for so long. This is a combination of “The Champ” and “Rocky” with battling robots. I have made no secret of the fact that I am a sentimentalist. It is not a result of my age, I have always worn my emotions on my sleeves and I find that movies which stir me are the ones I can care the most for. The intellect behind a film such as “Raging Bull”, can be admired for it’s frankness and willingness to look at the ugly in life, but it can’t stay in my heart the way a beat down Philadelphia club fighter managed to do. I admire films that force us to think, and I appreciate them for the questions they ask and the mirror that they sometimes hold up to our faces. At the end of the day, I would not want them to be any different. “The Wrestler” from a couple of years ago is a good example of this kind of film, it flirts with sentimentality but demands that we be realists. It is a great movie, but I saw it once and may never see it again unless someone else wants to watch it when I am around. Same thing with the movie “Eight Men Out”, which I thought was the best film of the year when it came out. I’ve seen it only once since then, and I still admire it but do not love it.

“Real Steel” is not a great movie in the sense that it is art. It is mainstream entertainment that understands that emotion is the key to bringing an audience to your movie. It is not hamfisted, the film makers don’t slap you in the face with the obvious. It is told as a good story should be told, with care and a little bit of audience manipulation. There are large sections of the movie devoted to the cardboard characters of Charlie and Max. They are needed though to make the fights mean something. The robot fighter “Atom” is a machine, but he represents the struggle of their relationship. It is the emotional bond between the father and son that needs the robot to be a surrogate heart. Everything that happens does so to bring us emotionally to the point where we want this relationship to be saved. and “Atom” is the savior.

The performers are fine. Jackman starts out as an indifferent ass, that can’t think straight enough to see the things that are obvious to everyone else. His acting meets the demands of the script, but it is a professional job not an outstanding one. The kid, is not a natural actor, but he has the right kind of face and a grace about him when he does his dancing with the robot. He sells the moxie of the kid, and the script calls for the kid to have big dreams. His is a case of casting saving a movie when acting might not have. If George Lucas had done the same kind of careful casting with the Star Wars prequels, we would have better childhood memories. This is a crowd pleasing, well made entertainment, if you have disdain for the idea going it, you will probably be surprised that there is more heart here than you expected. I had higher hopes for the movie, and it lived up to them. I’ll be able to watch this for years, and although my intellect will not grow, I know my heart will not shrink.

Star Trek

In the minds of the Kirkham family, this was the best film of 2009. We could not understand how after expanding the nominees for best picture to ten, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences could neglect this exciting, artful relaunch of a historic franchise. This movie got fantastic reviews and did very good business when it came out and there was no reason that anyone should shy away from it. There have been criticisms I have seen from trolls on a number of sites that refer to J.J. Abrams as Captain Camera Flare. I think the camera flares were used in a great way in making the movie visually dynamic and removing some of the stodginess that plagued the films when they made the original leap from the small to the big screen.

AMC Theaters was running a series of films to promote their IMAX screens this last week. You could see “Fast Five”, “Inception”, or “Star Trek” for seven bucks. We went last Sunday and we went to an evening show which is why this post is just now going up (I’ve been pretty busy this week). Amanda and I both object to AMC using the “IMAX” label to sell these theaters. I know that they have special projection and sound, and you can tell that the theater screen is slightly larger than a traditional movie screen. Still, it hardly constitutes a justification for picking peoples pockets of an extra 5-7 dollars just to say you saw it in IMAX. Back when the film was originally in theaters, we did spend the extra money to see it in real IMAX, with the steep seating and the immersive seven story screen. That was worth the extra bucks. We decided that since they were showing it for a discount for all screenings for $7 , we were not really endorsing “Faux MAX”, but rather we were exploiting it. Still the sound and picture were great, but as big as the screen is, there is no way to compare it to the stand alone theaters that IMAX originally represented. This screening took place at a theater we have been going to for a dozen or more years. The Covina 30 is now really the Covina 17, they had to close half their screens because they are down from the peak number of guests at more that a million in 2000, to the 70,000 they had last year. One of the reasons that attendance might be down is that people dislike being hoodwinked by the promise of one thing and the presentation of something else.

OK, let me get off my high horse and just talk about the movie a little. This film is spectacular to look at and is filmed in a very dynamic way. The space battles are shown from a variety of dimensions. Which can be a little disconcerting but is less problematic than the shaky cam that most other films employ now a days to show action. The story sets up an alternate reality featuring the familiar characters but in younger forms and slightly different relational circumstances. It uses a time travel device to accomplish this without attempting to erase all of the history that those of us who love Trek care about. I first saw Star Trek on TV in 1966, it was a color show and the day my father brought home and set up our first color TV, Star Trek was on that night. I was not a regular Trek viewer until the show was in reruns, playing on afternoon early evening TV on our local stations. Both of my brothers watched it with me in the giant family room in a house my parents rented in the MidWick section of Alhambra. I continued to be a fan after we had moved and my brothers shifted to other interests. There is so much that is admirable about the original series that there was some trepidation concerning this reboot.

The casting is perfect. Mr. Scott is much more mischievous than in the original series, and he serves as comic relief her. That is a shift from the use of Checkov in the original series as the comic foil, but it works. Spock and Uhura have a vastly different relationship in the new movie, and it promises some interesting future plot lines. The two characters that are pretty much the same and both perfectly cast are Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy. Chris Pine is a handsome young man with solid acting chops and he makes the future of Kirk look bright. Karl Urban has channeled DeForest Kelly and got it perfect. My only complaint is that Dr. McCoy and Captain Kirk need more by play in the main part of the story. Again, I see great room for growth in future episodes. It appears that we have had the last big screen acting from Leonard Nimoy, and he gets to leave on a winning note. Eric Banna is better in this movie than anything else I have seen him in.

It may be too late for you to get out to the AMC to catch this during it’s current run, but don’t fear. Filming is scheduled to start in a few months on the next big screen adventure of the Star Ship Enterprise, and I hold great hope that all will go well. Until it hits the big screen in 2013, “Live Long and Prosper.”