Real Steel

By , October 25, 2011 8:50 pm

"Well, it was either refinance my mortgage or do this movie. This movie required less paperwork."

Reviewed by James Owen

If you’re going to make a sci-fi flick about fightin’ robots, then have the decency to make a crazily stupid film if you aren’t going to swing for allegory or social relevance. That is, unless you are hack extraordinaire Shawn Levy, and Richard Matheson’s short story easily translates into a vanilla paste-bland October filler movie. “Real Steel” and takes what could be an interesting story (really!) and makes it into series of sports movie cliches that lack any genuine…wait for it…punch.

It’s 2020 and technology has evolved to where robots have replaced humans in the sport of boxing. Did the sport have to do that for health or liability concerns? We never find out.  Does our society also use this technology to wage wars or supplement law enforcement—I mean, we’re sending Predator drones into sovereign airspace to shoot at whomever’s on our terror list! Unfortunately, the director of the Night at the Museum films isn’t much interested in anything other than…hey…fightin’ robots!

Former boxer Charlie Denton (Hugh Jackman) is supposed to be this unscrupulous, down-and-out robot shill that takes heaps of scrap to state fairs to fight bulls. (Yes, you heard me. Even this is treated with earnestness.)  However, that’s hard to convey to an audience when you look like Hugh Jackman with a close-shaved head.

But we’ve got a family sub-plot brewing. Through ridiculous legal wrangling, Charlie gets stuck with his son Max (Dakota Goya), whom he now takes him on the robot-battling circuit. Undeterred, we watch Charlie buy other junky robots and watch them get eviscerated comically. His robots get a particular thrashing from super-robot Zeus (yes, Zeus). Then, Max finds Atom, who somehow saves young Max’s life. Atom is some kind of practice robot who can take hits but not really dole any out.

Wow…he sounds like Charlie: life is always pummeling and he can’t seem to do anything about it.  While Dad is not sold on Atom, Max really does believe in him. Or it. And, even though he’s never had much of a relationship with dear old pop, the film strives to convince us this confidence will help Max believe in Charlie as well. They work on Atom, the audience is treated to training montages, and we watch as the story crescendos towards Atom taking on Zeus (yes, Zeus) in the climatic battle.

Think about, for a moment, where the screenwriters are trying to take this movie. It could be the ultimate conflict between man-made technology. You have this minuscule unit (with a namesake acknowledging its place in science) battling “the father of the gods.” The simple vs. the complex. The accessible vs. the powerful. The great thing about science fiction is its ability to play out contemporaneous concerns to extreme boundaries in order to challenge the audience. While the notion of fighting robots is kind of silly, there’s real potential. What would happen if artificial intelligence could challenge each other? Would it be better for humanity? Worse?

But Shawn Levy, whether he cares anything about sci-fi or not, knows what makes a studio executive happy. He knows how to craft a film into a good marketing campaign. Or is that the other way around?  Either way, he would rather not challenge when he can placate. This is a film about a father redeeming his image in the eyes of his son. This is about an underdog training for the Big Fight.  Both are tried and true formulas. Even with all the potential for provocative material, “Real Steel” fails because Charlie isn’t the one going into the ring. The robot is. So all the tension about whether Charlie will be redeemed as a father or an ex-boxer is pointless because HE’S NOT FIGHTING ANYONE! There’s a disconnect between his character’s arc and the outcome of the story because they are parallel, not convergent. Perhaps better filmmakers could cross these two paths. What we know is the guy who made “Date Night” sure can’t.

Compare this to the episode of The Twilight Zone that adapted the Matheson story. Lee Marvin plays the lead, which centers more on how man interacts with machine and how society has become sold on machine’s superiority.  It’s a little dated, but you can see the potential. The film could have evoked some ethical questions, like a low-rent “A.I.” Or it could have just been crazy fun. I hoped for misplaced ambition or something that would show Jackman thought this was as goofy as the rest of us. Nope, just a dull film geared for families with nothing memorable left for the kids or their parents. It’s about as offensive as what Warner Brothers did to the end of “I am Legend.”

Could they not have even called it “Reel Steel”? The extra “e” makes it fun in a stupid way. But no, the dude who gave us “Cheaper by the Dozen” couldn’t even have done us that favor.

The Pitch:

1 Battlebots

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Michael Bay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

2 Real Steel

2 Real Steel

Moneyball

By , October 22, 2011 9:51 am

A rejected "before and after" shot for the new Weight Watchers campaign

Reviewed by James Owen

Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” looks like the ultimate “inside baseball” movie. As such, I shouldn’t like it. I was raised with a disdain for sports and haven’t developed patience for it as an adult (Except for you, fellas). But this Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (!) adaptation of the  Michael Lewis novel isn’t so much about baseball as it’s about the Grand Idea—something so crazy that merely putting it into motion is legendary.

Usually, these films center on eccentric and/or obsessive characters who kick all life’s other responsibilities, including their loved ones, right in front of the bus of the Grand Idea.  This is easier to see in films about business, like Martin Scorcese’s Howard Hughes biopic “The Aviator” or the Sorkin-written Zuckerberg opus “The Social Network”. But this is also the root of underdog sports movies like “Slap Shot” or “A League of their Own.”  How else do you beat the odds without a Grand Idea?  I may not like sports, but “Moneyball” shows what’s possible in sports movies.

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) was a phenom as a recruit, meh as a player, and now floundering as the general manager of the Oakland A’s. Despite (or because of) a successful 2001 season, all of the good players are bolting for the big money of the Red Sox and the Royals. Ha ha. Just kidding, Kansas City. I meant the Yankees. Beane has no money and, despite his pleas, will not get any money. His scouts are from bygone days, dispensing the same type of thinking they’ve done for decades. Beane rages against it without really knowing why. He tries to cut a deal with GM Mark Shaprio of the Cleveland Indians, who tries to yank good prospects from him based on the advice of his minion, the Yale-educated Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). Like any smart business man, Beane identifies Brand as a threat and offers him a job.

What makes Brand so good? His approach to prospect evaluation is different than the conventional wisdom. The scouts that so irritate Beane look at RBIs, stolen bases, and batting averages (and idiosyncratic details like basing a player’s confidence on the hotness of his girlfriend), where Brand looks at on-base percentages and other obscure-but-revealing statistics. This is too wonkish, too dorky, too new for a traditionalist sport like baseball.

Enter Moneyball! Having spent time in Lawrence, Kansas the home of Bill James, I had actually heard of this. James rose from obscurity in the early 1980s with tomes looking at baseball through a frame he coined “sabermetrics,” which focused on data-driven game analysis. Now, the film informs me James is a weirdo (a fair point) as well as, in the early part of the zero decade anyways, outside the conventional thinking.

After some fast-paced Sorkin-style whiteboarding, Beane puts together a team that causes a revolt with the scouts and consternation with the manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, so brilliant with so little).  Howe resists this new system because he must manage in a way “he can explain in job interviews after the season.”  This classic Sorkin line creates a sympathetic Howe because, well, you can’t really blame him. Lesser films would make him the bad guy, but “Moneyball” knows the Grand Idea doesn’t really have villains. It just has people who haven’t come around yet.

Where the tension lies in “Moneyball” is not in a protagonist-antagonist formula. It’s about time and pressure. It’s about watching the Grand Idea as it flounders and flops, is criticized and mocked. The opening of the 2002 season is a slow-burning agony;  Bennet’ pacing is slow and lingering, contrary to the David Fincher approach of squeezing two pages of Sorkin’s script  per minute in “The Social Network.” This goes to the purpose of this film: not to show the breakneck speed of an overnight success, but to make the audience question the outcome of something they should already know is true. Miller pulls it off with real style and skill.

Pitt wears the agony of losing like a tailor-made suit. He embodies the inherent contradiction of the film: his Grand Idea is predicated on rethinking a system so that it wouldn’t have picked him as a player out of high school. That failure drives this success—moneyball would weed out players like him. Some critics have complained Beane’s failure is not well-explained, but to my mind, it’s almost over-explained. If not for Pitt’s longing stares and defeated posture, it would be over-the-top. It’s not his just his rugged handsomeness without an expiration date that evokes Newman and Redford. He wears the emotional distress of his characters without beating us over the head. That’s an effortless movie star worthy of such comparisons.

Of course, things come around. This is perhaps a “spoiler,” but moneyball leads to the A’s to the longest regular season winning streak in America League history. Of course, critical sports historians will say the film omits the strength of the team’s pitchers. (Yes, I quoted NPR. I DON’T GET SPORTS!) But, folks, Grand Idea movies cannot cram in every fact.  This is not a movie about a competent pitching staff, and you probably couldn’t sell that at $9 a ticket.  The most gratifying part of “Moneyball” to watch Beane and Brand scheme and scrap their way toward realizing their vision from nearly two-and-half hours. They fire staff and trade players. They finesse the egos of some and blow off others.  We know Pitt can do this, but the revelation is Jonah Hill, who proves to be just as good in a sober, not exactly offbeat drama as he is in the angst-ridden Apatow comedies.

“Moneyball” is not flawless. After the climax, the film dwells on for another twenty minutes about post-season decision-making that requires less dramatization than it’s given. Plus, the actual story has a female drought, so the film creates a daughter and ex-wife to occupy the audience’s interest. Ex-wife Sharon barely registers, despite being played by the great Robin Wright. Beane’s daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey) fares better simply because she’s in the film more, but her presence exists only to give “Moneyball” an emotional hook it doesn’t really need.

In the end, this isn’t what drives Billy Beane—he’s animated by the obsession to prove others wrong, to keep going until you win or go crazy in the process. You don’t need to understand sports to get that. I can stop everything I am doing to watch “Apollo 13” and not have to know anything about astrophysics. Same way with sabermetrics. “Moneyball” is a smart, well-acted film about the mechanics of obsession. That’s the real American pastime.

The Pitch:

2 Manager Joe Riggins

2 Manager Joe Riggins


 

 

 

 

 

 

 Plus

2 Deputy White House Communications Director Will Bailey


2 Deputy White House Communications Director Will Bailey


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

4 Moneyball


4 Moneyball


4 Moneyball


4 Moneyball

Ides of March, The

By , October 11, 2011 8:03 pm

One can only imagine what handsome, dashing men find funny.

Reviewed by James Owen

No filmmaker is better qualified to examine the guts of political campaigning than George Clooney, who worked on his father Nick’s unsuccessful 2004 congressional run in his native Kentucky.  In this way, “The Ides of March” is refreshing:  Many celebrities pledge “support” and raise money, but this Auteur actually talks about politics in an informed manner.  Unfortunately, Clooney’s film isn’t a policy argument in narrative form or a polemic about How Things Really Are, but a morality play about how cynicism is ruining politics and the country. Clooney, who adapted the film from former Charles Schumer and Howard Dean staffer Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, tries so hard to make this rather obvious point that he misses the real point of the story.

“Ides” opens with junior campaign manager Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) alone on stage in an empty auditorium checking the sound by blandly mouthing his boss’ stump speech. Later, we hear Pennsylvania Governor and Democratic presidential candidate Mike Morris (Clooney) hitting every applause line in the speech—in fact, until the third act, Clooney seems to be filming a test run of a his own future campaign. These contrasting scenes embody the film’s theme:  a puppeteer of political theater and his pull-string doll whose voice fills the echo chamber.  Then we learn through handy exposition the primary is now down to two candidates: Morris and a conservative Arkansas senator (Michael Mantell), in the final battleground of Ohio.

Still, Clooney shrewdly boils down the action to the fight for one state’s delegates, where less assured filmmakers would have made everything BIG and blown the whole budget and pages of exposition on the entire campaign.  Rather, Clooney captures the claustrophobia of campaign life through Myers’ cramped offices and hotel rooms of Cincinnati.  He puts up with this unglamorous life because, despite working on a gazillion campaigns, he just knows there’s something different about Morris.

Based on the speeches given to him by the screenwriters (Clooney, Willimon, and Grant Heslov) as well as the art-deco posters, let’s assume “something different” means “Obama-esque.” Here lies the problem. A young guy like Myers probably wouldn’t be the deputy campaign manager on a presidential race, and if he were, he’d have the experience to eschew this kind of wide-eyed optimism.  Otherwise, he’d have burned out on other political saviors.  The professional campaigner can be dazzled by his boss (who probably got into politics precisely because he’s so dazzling), but you can’t make it from job to job without a healthy dose of skepticism.  You have to be cool without being cold, but Myers comes across more like a starry-eyed activist than a steady hand.

From this cracked foundation, the film crumbles in the second act.  Details will not be revealed here, but Hollywood’s political scandals are rather predictable:  Republicans get in trouble for money; Democrats get in trouble with women. Though reality isn’t quite so neat, “Ides” doesn’t deviate from this basic set-up.  Besides, the scandals are merely a fact of political life—what’s important is how they’re “handled.”  This is the true litmus test of professional politicos:  Do they see the “handling” of scandal as an evil in itself, or is “handling” simply a by-product of the natural composition of politics?

While this debate is worthwhile for political neophytes at all levels of our democracy, Clooney doesn’t really follow through on the idea.  Rather, he has said his film is about betrayal: between people, between a person and her morals, between the politician and the voter. The film’s title gives that away, Brute.  Clooney’s conclusion is that the origin of political cynicism is in the disappointment with “saviors”; thus, because the nature of politics is compromise and politicians are human, “true belief” begets cynicism.  In Clooney’s view, this is the logical conclusion of a political process with real people at their center: anyone seeking power is going to do something bad to get it. If you thought power came from doing good, shelve your principles and get over it.

I didn’t need George Clooney to tell me that—and, in fact, his conclusion doesn’t really jibe with the facts on the ground.  Perhaps, having worked as and around political professionals over the past eleven years in a variety of different races, I have a rosier view. Sure, many are jaded, and the higher on the food chain you go, the more cynical they can be.  But that dances around the complex reality of politics.

People make a living running campaigns, and like most professional people, they gravitate toward working for like-minded people they genuinely like.  As with all of us, sometimes they work for people just to pay the bills. But sometimes they work for people they believe can make a difference. That’s not special to politics—that’s just business.  Ultimately, the job of the Stephen Myerses of the world is to make sure the person they work for gets the chance to make a difference.  And when the right opportunities come along, Stephen Myers works for people he wants to get that chance.  And as long as candidates have to solicit donations en-masse to mass-market themselves, that’s the system.

There’s nothing cynical about working within a flawed system to affect the greater good—but it can often feel that way, which is what breeds political nihilism.  This is what “The Ides of March” should have been about, rather than theme-checking the Shakespeare play most common to junior highs.  In fact, Farragut North is a much better title.  This is the mystical stop on D.C.’s Red Line, where the political consultants on K-Street meet to, as the film puts it, “pimp out ex-Senators to Saudi sheiks.”   Why are people so attracted to the chain-smoking, casual alcoholism, crammed inadequacy of the office space (even in presidential campaigns), and lousy pay this life offers?  This is no glamour in creating call lists, and many politicos end up looking exactly like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti:  shrewd, but horribly unhealthy and terribly worn out.  These two claw at every bit of dialogue with the need to win and, more importantly, be right.  Why do so many talented people give themselves to this life?

Clooney may be qualified to make a very good movie about politics, but he may not be the right guy to answer that question.  Sure, he’s developed into a great filmmaker:  his dark minimalism captures not only the realism of political life, but also his themes about the work that happens in the shadows between a members of a closed society.  But, his approach is all wrong.  He is the starry-eyed Obama supporter in the age of debt ceiling hostage taking.  He is the son who had to watch his dad lose his Congressional race. His ambition is “The Candidate.”  But to paraphrase another classic from the 1970’s: “Jake, it’s just campaign management.”

The Pitch:

2 Good Night, and Good Luck

2 Good Night, and Good Luck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Bob Roberts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 The Ides of March

3 The Ides of March

3 The Ides of March

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