Monday, November 21, 2011

Real Steel (2011)

Another forgettable and painfully predictable sports movie.

Formulaic sports films upset me. There aren’t any surprises, unexpected twists, deep plot points that require concentration—just two hours rooting for the underdog, leading up to a completely predictable conclusion. To make matters worse, as a general rule the more inevitable the plot, the more predictable the scenes, and the more uplifting the ending, the less cinematic the film. That’s the case here. Any attempts at bucking the formula in favor of cinematic greatness are completely absent leaving the audience with an occasionally entertaining, but incredibly mediocre, film.

In the futuristic world of Real Steel, human boxing has been abandoned in favor of mechanical pugilism. It’s more violent, more intense and each round ends with more carnage. Former champion boxer Charlie Kenton is a small-time promoter, building and fighting scrap robots. His luck is bad and his gambling debts are piling up. When Charlie is forced to take custody of his 11-year-old son, Max, he sees this as only another liability. But when Max finds a sparring robot named Atom, he convinces Charlie to book Atom a fight. Against all bets, Atom wins. Charlie sees this as his chance at a comeback, and an opportunity to rebuild his relationship with his son.

The plot is as expected—obvious, the outcome of each scene determined at its outset. The father-son storyline was cute, sometimes even touching, but there were never any surprises. Bad father-son relationship at the beginning; family harmony at the end. The sports scenes were the same, the result of each round a sure bet before the ring of the starting bell.

Hugh Jackman isn’t a great actor. Yet there’s something about him that makes him an instant hero. Even when Charlie was still a loser, I couldn’t help but cheer for him. His charm made up for his lack of talent. Evangeline Lilly, on the other hand…not so much. Her acting was robotic, lifeless and pathetic; her character felt forced and fake. Young Dakota Goyo was cheeky as Max, but the character was such a brat that I couldn’t really stand watching him. The acting is paltry, reflecting the overall quality of the film.

To be fair, the actors had little to work with, script-wise. The dialogue was populated by countless platitudes and clich├ęs—typical sports movie fare. But the incessant corniness made the exchanges painful to listen to. All the dialogue was devoid of any nuance, talking down to its audience by explaining every single detail.

As is the case with most sports films, the sports scenes were the most anticipated and the most exciting. Real Steel doesn’t disappoint in this area. Underdog Atom rises to fame in glorious and inspiring fashion. The robot boxing scenes are beautifully made with special effects so lifelike, the robots could actually be real. But these scenes were too few and far between, spread out over two hours of unbearable filler.

One surprise was the fact that this film, marketed towards families, featured frequent profanity. The language was never strong, but it was regular, salty and crude. More surprising is that much of the bad language was uttered by the 11-year-old protagonist. The inclusion of such crudities was likely an attempt to ratchet up the rating in order to attract older teens and adults.

Like a boxer who only knows one punch, Real Steel has one strength: robot boxing. But take away these scenes and all that’s left is a weak story, pathetic acting, awful dialogue and a disappointing score. The film is a piece of cinematic trash at its worst, a guilty pleasure-waste of two hours at best. Not worth the waste of time.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Moneyball (2011)

It lacks the human touch that would have made it great. 

He hits the ball, hard, into center field. His habit is to always stop at first but, in the moment, he rounds the bag, running to second. He’s horrified as his worst fear is realized. He’s slipped and fallen, sliding in the dirt. In a panic, he writhes on the ground, arms extended, reaching for the safety of the white first-base bag. As he desperately scrambles for first, he hears the basemen laughing at him. He’d hit a home run and he didn’t even know it.

So goes the story of Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics. His revolutionary methods changed the way baseball is played forever. Yet, while the world recognized his greatness, he couldn’t see it. He lamented his failures, unable to see he’d hit a home run.

The A’s of the 2002 season are losers. They have a small budget and their three biggest stars have just left for more prestigious ball clubs. Billy becomes increasingly frustrated with his coaching staff, the managers crudely evaluating possible new players. But when Billy meets Peter Brandt, the game changes. Peter suggests a new type of tactic, a roster focused less on appearance and appeal and more on the ability to drive in runs. Baseball is, after all, a game of statistics. Billy and Peter assemble their motley crew of misfit ball players and are met with skepticism, mockery and scorn. But the A’s, against everyone's expectations, start winning.

By all statistical measurements, this film should have been great—inspirational true story, great cast, sports scenes, family turmoil and drama. By all odds, it should have been a winner. But it wasn’t great. In fact, it was barely average. The reason for this? The film failed to connect with my heart. I never felt inspired by or attached to the lives of the characters. Even when the drama escalated, Billy finding it increasingly difficult to manage a team and maintain a relationship with his daughter, I felt detached. Even when the film tried to further deepen Billy’s character by sporadic flashbacks, highlighting his failed career as a player, I never felt involved.

The acting and characterization were strong but, at times, I didn’t believe the actors. Brad Pitt seldom was Billy Beane. I never connected with him or the others on an emotional level. Frankly, I didn’t really care. Compared to Aaron Sorkin’s last, Oscar-winnining screenplay for The Social Network, this one flagged. I wished that, as in The Social Network, the characters would have been stronger, the dialogue snappier and the comedic interludes not so far apart. The interplays between Billy and Peter are heartfelt, sometimes amusing, but still they neglected the personal touch that the film so desperately needed.

For a sports film, Moneyball spends little time on the field. Instead, much of the screen time is given to statistical figures flashing across the screen. But the time spent showing America’s pastime is worth the wait. Highly stylized, well scored and beautifully choreographed sequences give an ethereal feeling to the game. The lighting during these sequences stood out, a perfect example of modern chiaroscuro. Only these scenes provided the desired sports film catharsis I longed for. I couldn’t resist rooting for the underdog A’s. Truly, these were the only scenes that really made me care.

Moneyball never hits a home run. It has strong characters, a solid, inspirational story and some great sports action; statistically speaking, this film should have been great. But without characters or dialogue that make the audience care, it’s only average.