You'd think a man who graduated Yale at age 20 -- with honors no less -- would make smarter movies. Shawn Levy, the alum responsible for predictable, high concept crap like Big Fat Liar, Date Night and Night at the Museum, does not.
He has, however, managed to make a movie that isn't awful this time (though occasionally it comes close) and, after nearly a decade of trying, that means Levy deserves some credit. With Real Steel, Levy has achieved an acceptable level of mediocrity.
Hugh Jackman is Charlie Kenton. It's the year 2020 and Charlie is an ex-boxer, and former champ, who currently slums the state fair circuit. But Charlie's not fighting himself (at least not literally). In the near future, robots have replaced humans in the ring and Charlie rolls around the country with his fighting 'bots trying to scrape out a meager living from betting on unsanctioned fights.
Unfortunately, Charlie makes horrible bets. After losing yet another 'bot (and bet) to a shuckster rodeo owner (Kevin Durand), Charlie is in the midst of a quick escape when he learns that his former girlfriend has died and he has to deal with the legalities surrounding his wayward son, Max (Dakota Goyo).
In order to make some quick cash, Charlie strikes a deal with the boys aunt and uncle (Hope Davis -- slumming here -- and perennial "hey, it's that guy!" James Rebhorn) essentially selling his legal rights to Max over to them in exchange for $100,000. To make it look on the level Charlie agrees to take Max for the summer. He plans to dump Max off with his not-quite-girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly) at her home/boxing gym while going on the road.
Of course Max can't stand his father, at least until he realizes that he's in the robot boxing game. What kid could hold a grudge over years of emotional neglect when the clearly unrepentant perpetrator fights robots? Contentious bonding ensues.
The intent is appreciable -- a sort of '80s, father/son, sci-fi flick. The predictability is almost as comforting as the reliably seamless ILM FX in this Spielberg-produced kidventure. But Real Steel is based on an old Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) story that had a hell of a lot more to say than this film is even interested in. Real Steel is merely using that story kernel (robots replacing humans in boxing) as a hook on which to hang a routine, broken-family drama.
Directed by Shawn Levy from a script worked over by God knows how many writers, Real Steel asks a few pointed questions about the nature of humanity's need to see violence, but never answers them. It's pretty much just a thin excuse to re-make The Champ with robots.
While the FX are pretty great (that I really didn't think twice about them is a real testament to their quality), one find's themselves appreciating the stoic 'bots when compared to the over acting going on from Goyo and Jackman. Part of it is the film believing it is cooler than it actually is, filling its boxing world with bombast and trying to amp that up by never even considering subtlety in the father/son relationship.
Jackman's performance seems predicated on over-the-top swagger as he seemingly yells most of his lines when he's not turning on the waterworks for the occasional moment of familial strife (if it's not involving young Kenton, than it's Lilly's character to whom Charlie owes money and who is struggling to keep her father's gym open). Goyo plays Max with that worn out, unreal combination of rambunctious abandon coupled with preternatural maturity that doesn't exist in actual kids.
Levy shoots a nice enough looking film -- the opening credits were downright lovely -- and the sheen of Spielberg is all over this one. But for as much fun as it looks like from a distance, Real Steel doesn't have enough support to construct much more than a pretty façade over a rote story that breaks no new ground.
The Ides of March
George Clooney is an issues guy and with The Ides of March his issue is the mud of electoral politics. He's interested in how scandal can obscure good intentions or even how the machine itself can run down those trying to ameliorate the blowback of unintended consequences.
Ryan Gosling portrays Stephen Meyers, a junior campaign manager for Mike Morris, the charismatic Governor of Pennsylvania who is running in the primaries to become the next President of the United States.
Meyers is a political spin-master of the near highest caliber, under the tutelage of the master, his manager Paul Zara. (The typically great Phillip Seymour Hoffman.) Zara has a plan, nearly locked, that will garner the endorsement of an influential Senator (Jeffrey Wright) and the hundreds of pledged delegates he commands, catapulting Morris into the presidential race and surely to the Oval Office.
But things, almost imperceptibly, begin to unravel. First, Meyer's accepts an invitation from rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) who uses the meeting to try and hire Meyer's to the enemy's (ahh, but this is politics -- who knows who the enemy really is?) campaign. Meyer's loyalty to his candidate is unquestionable as it is unshakeable.
Then, when Meyers begins schtupping another campaign worker, Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) he learns of a dark secret that tests his faith in Morris and the campaigns faith in him.
Directed with great confidence and told with a nice sense of stand-alone economy by George Clooney, The Ides of March is a throwback to the political thrillers of the '70s (Alan Pakula's The Parallax View comes to mind). Loaded with sharp performances and narrative allegories that mirror the current state of the political landscape, Clooney has crafted a refined, mature and classy picture with style and assurance.
Adapted from the Beau Willimon stage-play Farragut North by Clooney, long-time writing partner and Grant Heslov and Willimon himself, The Ides of March is a tightly-paced and taught snapshot of the behind the scenes of the campaign, that is richly layered thanks to some fine performances. But ultimately it's about loyalty and what happens when a talented, sincere neophyte loses his idealism to the undiscriminating realities of political skullduggery and the merciless gears of a national campaign. Meyer's arc is a sad one, just as much as it is an expected one.
Finely written, with cracking dialogue and a focused narrative that belies its straightforward simplicity with deliciously detailed turns and performances, The Ides of March is wonderfully well made.
There isn't a bad performance in sight. From Clooney (who is essentially a supporting role) doing great work -- the guy was born to be in front of a camera, and increasingly so, behind it -- to Gosling who brings his combination of boyish charm and roguish maturity to Meyer's, crafting a tangible character with a fully realized arc. With Giamatti chewing scenery in a way he should patent and Hoffman bringing all the gravity of a black hole, Clooney elicits a great trio of performances from his gallery of characters. The women seem to get the short shrift -- Marisa Tomei as a reporter is given just enough to be an opportunistic bitch. Wood, on the other hand is just opportunistic and disposable.
The Ides of March is strong filmmaking on most every level. Clooney's visual sense is refreshingly relaxed, rich and attractive while the writing is great. The climax didn't quite have the narrative/emotional punch I was looking for but what there was actually sank in slowly. Because unlike most films out this time of (or any) year The Ides of March didn't immediately evaporate from memory like the fog being burned off by the sun.
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