Real Steel (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) was addicted to robot gambling which was inopportune, in the least, because he was neck-deep in debt. After his robot was demolished by a raging bull, he was informed that his former girlfriend had passed away and his son, Max (Dakota Goyo), needed an official guardian. Charlie was to appear in court to pick up the boy, but Max’ aunt, Debra (Hope Davis), who married a rich man, wanted to adopt him. For a hundred thousand dollars, the gambler made a deal, unbeknownst to Max and Debra, with the husband: Max was to spend time with his father over the summer but he was to be returned in Debra’s care after their trip to Italy. Written by John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, and Jeremy Leven, “Real Steel” managed to be quite involving as it explored the connection between father and son through robot fighting. The picture was smart in first establishing Charlie as our protagonist on the path to self-destruction. He was a good guy, but he often relied on instincts instead of measured calculation to make a quick buck. On the outside, he seemed to do it for the money. He was a former boxer who saw himself as a failure in that field. I looked at him and considered that perhaps he gambled for the rush. Maybe watching his robot fight was like being in the ring himself. As his machines were eradicated, so were his personal connections. Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), his somewhat girlfriend and the daughter of the man who taught him to box, really needed the money that Charlie burrowed to pay for the gym she managed. This made him so desperate, he didn’t even think twice to sell his son. Charlie and Max were quite opposite but the same in important ways. Meeting for the first time, the son suspected that he’d been sold and asked his father if he, in fact, was. Charlie told the boy the truth but Max, plucky and sarcastic, digested the information with dignity and dealt with it on his own. When presented by bad news, neither shriveled; both saw it as a chance to start anew and to prove everybody wrong. That was the reason why I wanted Charlie and Max to succeed as robot gamblers and as father and son. Notice that I haven’t even discussed the robots. That’s because they were secondary to the human drama that propelled the movie forward, yet necessary as a catharsis for these characters. Max stumbled upon a robot named Atom in a junkyard. It was a sparring robot, designed to take a lot of hits but not actually hit back as effectively. With the help of Charlie’s robots, Ambush and Noisy Boy, that had been destroyed, Max was able to extract necessary pieces from them to make Atom stronger in both offense and defense. Eventually, they won enough fights to gain popularity and be invited to World Robot Boxing Tournament in which they had to face Zeus, the undefeated robot champion. Based on “Steel,” a short story by Richard Matheson, “Real Steel,” directed by Shawn Levy, was ultimately a story of redemption. Our decision to emotionally invest in the characters, if one so chooses, was worthwhile because it wasn’t just about metals clanging against each other like in Michael Bay’s egregious “Transformers” movies. There was something real at stake. That is, a father finding his son and recognizing that he was good enough even though he wasn’t perfect.
Switch, The (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Kassie (Jennifer Aniston) decided she was going to have a kid even though she had not yet found the man of her dreams. She told Wally (Jason Bateman), her best friend, her plans but he thought it was crazy idea. She went with it anyway and found a guy named Roland (Patrick Wilson) who was willing to donate his sperm for money. During Kassie’s artificial insemination party, drunk Wally accidentally spilled Roland’s sperm down the sink. His intoxicated mind thought he could get away with it by replacing the lost sample with his own. The next day, he didn’t remember a thing. “The Switch,” based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ short story called “Baster,” was a bit of a surprise because it had a surprising amount of humanity. It could easily have been about the gags–like sperm and the hardship of being pregnant and giving birth–but it made a smart decision to pay attention to the characters’ motivations. Even though some of the lines delivered felt disingenuous, especially when the characters felt like they needed to deliver a speech in order to get their point across, I enjoyed it because I extracted bits of meaning, accidental as they may be, in their attempt. Aniston and Bateman had an awkward chemistry that worked. I thought that specific type of chemistry was vital because their characters conceived a child named Sebastian (Thomas Robinson) who was adorable, equipped with sad eyes, pouty lips, and eccentricities like collecting picture frames and putting strangers’ photos in them. The movie did a good job highlighting the similarities between Wally and Sebastian, but I wish it had spent more time exploring the bond between the mother and son. I wanted to see their similarities, too. After all, it was Kassie’s idea to bring a child to the world. Her trepidation of her dwindling biological clock was not a good enough reason for me to like her. With her specific circumstance, what made her a good mother? She was good with her son when he had to go to bed, but the feminist message embedded in making the decision to raise a child without a man was somewhat lost. Nevertheless, the emotional payoff toward the end was effective because we knew that Sebastian had learned, without being too obvious, to depend on his father and vice-versa. I also wished Jeff Goldblum and Juliette Lewis, Wally and Kassie’s best friends, respectively, had more scenes. They delivered a different sense of humor, Goldblum with his dry and deadpan delivery and Lewis with her baffled expressions and snide remarks, which was a nice balance to more pedestrian comical situations. Directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck, “The Switch” was a bona fide comedy that lacked complexity but it wasn’t one-dimensional. It was enjoyable because our expectations were met and sometimes that’s more than enough.
★★★ / ★★★★
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) was still mourning over his father’s death when he met Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a costume party, who couldn’t speak at the time due to laryngitis, an actress who was always on the move. Through her, he hoped to determine his place in terms of making a genuine, stable commitment with another person. Along with grief, Oliver felt confusion. His father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), at seventy-five, came out as a gay man right after his wife died. He claimed that he didn’t just want to be “theoretically gay” and he wanted to do something about it. So, he posted an ad and met Andy (Goran Visnjic), a younger man who was able to give Hal happiness for four great years. “Beginners,” written and directed by Mike Mills, seamlessly jumped back and forth between life and death, father and son. Oliver and Hal’s relationship, though sad and somewhat strained, was fascinating to observe. Not once did we get to hear them say, “I love you” to one another yet we felt that unspoken sentiment through their actions. It may come off that Oliver was a bit repelled by his father’s homosexuality. Regardless whether it be the truth or not, I was convinced that he respected his dad. Hal was, essentially, a prisoner his entire life. He was a prisoner of the times and his sexuality before he came out. When he did, he was still a prisoner because he almost immediately learned that he had a tumor in his lungs and that it had metastasized. What I loved about him was the fact that he didn’t allow himself to be a victim. He was a fighter. He faced difficulties with optimism. He didn’t allow the disease to limit who he was. I could look in his eyes and feel that he thought he deserved happiness. Not even his own son, an adult, could get in the way of that. And it shouldn’t. Most of the picture’s source of comedy was Hal telling his son about his adventures like how much fun he had at a gay club. But telling stories over the phone or in person was different than being physically included. When surrounded by gay men, Oliver almost distanced himself. His discomfort was apparent. There were several scenes that involved Oliver’s childhood and his relationship with his mom (Mary Page Keller). He valued the idea of his mother and father being together even though he, as a child, felt like there was something wrong in the marriage. The idea and the fears that came with it was probably why he consistently had trouble staying in a relationship. Unlike his father, I got the impression that he, subconsciously, felt like he didn’t deserve happiness. But he does. He just needed to let go of the rules, relax, and live his life the way he wanted to. He was a product of an American society that characterized itself as having one “right” answer, one “right” way to live. “Beginners” had a defined theme which was adaptation: Hal’s sexuality and cancer, Oliver’s sense of self-worth, and even Arthur, Oliver’s dog that can telepathically communicate, getting used to his new owner. Touching but never too heavy or suffocating, it was able to impart valuable lessons for both young and old.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), a recovering alcoholic nearing his one thousandth day of being sober, found his younger son, Tommy (Tom Hardy), sitting on his porch. They hadn’t seen each other in fourteen years. But the reunion couldn’t be colder. Tommy, an ex-Marine, despised his father and claimed that the only reason why he showed up was because he needed a trainer for Sparta, a middleweight championship for mixed martial arts, where the winner would receive five million dollars. Meanwhile, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), Paddy’s eldest son, felt extreme financial pressure. As a physics teacher, he and his wife (Jennifer Morrison) didn’t make enough to pay for their mortgage. They were given a couple of weeks until their house was to be taken by the bank. So, Brendan joined the tournament, completely unaware that his younger brother, who he also hadn’t seen in more than a decade, was participating. Directed by Gavin O’Connor, “Warrior” was equally spellbinding when the characters were inside and outside of the ring. The brothers hated their father for the way he treated them and their mother when they were still growing up. The writers made a smart decision in showing us Paddy as a man on the way to recovery but never as an abusive parent. It became easier to sympathize with him. It was unnecessary to show us the latter because the psychological and emotional damages were painfully apparent in the adult Tommy and Brendan. Tommy became a pill-popping, reticent, angry figure while Brendan strived to be everything his father was not to his own wife and children. Interestingly, they shared only one scene before the tournament. It was beautifully executed and completely heartbreaking. As one inched closer to one another, their animosity and frustration became palpable and suffocating which served as a great contrast against the open space that surrounded them. I was at the edge of my seat because I almost expected them to resolve their problems by throwing punches long time coming, outside of the competition with no referee to force them to stop. However, the most powerful scene was between Tommy and Paddy. While sitting in front of a slot machine, Paddy approached his son to express that he was proud of him. Tommy responded bitterly, comparing his father to a beggar who was desperate for his sons’ affections, blind to the fact that the only thing his two sons had in common was they no longer needed him, and his decision to become a good father was years too late. The camera was nicely placed very closely in front the actors’ faces as to savor every negative emotion. In addition, it was easy to see how much their characters restrained certain words, especially the father, out of fear in regretting it later. It was like watching someone attempting to tiptoe around broken glass accompanied by a force that propelled him forward in rate he wasn’t comfortable with. “Warrior,” based on the screenplay by Gavin O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis, and Cliff Dorfman, went beyond the pain experienced in body slams, direct punches to the face, and heavy kicks to the stomach. We rooted for both Brendan and Tommy because we understood what winning meant for them personally–something worth more than half a million dollars.
Road to Perdition (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by Sam Mendes, “Road to Perdition” was about a father (Tom Hanks) and son (Tyler Hoechlin) who had to go on a run from a mobster (Paul Newman) after the mobster’s son (Daniel Craig) murdered the wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the younger brother (Liam Aiken) out of jealousy. I saw this movie back in 2002 but I don’t remember much of it. Watching it again eight years later, I thought I was in for a hardcore action picture that involved gun-wielding gangsters but it turned out to be much more than that. Hanks completely blew me away because even though he was a hit man and had to be tough (the members of his family always kept a distance), there were moments of real sensitivity to his character, especially the interactions with his son when they were on the road. While it did have intense action scenes which involved Jude Law (also a hit man who happened to photograph dead people for a living) and Hanks in the diner and the hotel room, the movie was more about the slowly strengthening bond between a father and a son. Equally, it was about the father’s moral conflict between his family and the person he worked for as well as his own hopes of his son not turning out like him. All of the elements came together and created real tension so I was glued to the screen. While the picture had an ominous feel to it, it also had a great sense of humor such as when Hanks would rob banks specifically from the mobster’s accounts. The way Hanks delivered his lines to the bank managers made me feel like he was really having fun with his character. I thought “Road to Perdition” was a well-rounded film in terms of script, tension and unpredictability. However, it excelled in terms of acting and not playing on the obvious. Newman was not an ordinary mobster boss because he was gentle with children and the people he liked. But at the same time, his patience was short when it came to certain people, especially his son, and we really got to see how of much of a monster he could become. As for Law, as usual, he was very charming as he was lethal. He provided a nice contrast to Hanks’ dominating presence because Law didn’t seem dangerous at first glance. If I were to nitpick for a weakness, I would say that Hoechlin’s character could have been explored more. I argue that he was the main character (instead of Hanks) because he was narrator right from the opening scene. While he did go through some kind of evolution, he wasn’t as multidimensional as the other characters mentioned prior. Nevertheless, “Road to Perdition” is a strong film because of the organic manner it unfolded aided by very exemplary performances.
★★ / ★★★★
Set in the 1970s, “Diggers” was about four friends (Paul Rudd, Ken Marino, Ron Eldard, Josh Hamilton) who dug clams for a living whose lives began to unfold after Hunt’s (Rudd) father passed away. I saw great potential in this picture because all four men were so interesting to watch, but I felt like it came up too short in terms of really exploring their psychologies: the lead character and his father’s death, a friend having way too many kids, another friend’s blossoming relationship with the main character’s sister (Maura Tierney), and another who constantly experimented with drugs. As different as their stories and personalities were, I found it interesting that none of them was not really present or aware with how they were living their lives. That common theme had an innate sadness to it because all of them felt trapped–trapped in where they lived, in their occupations and in their minds. I felt like the movie really captured the 1970s with its introspective style of storytelling and soundtrack. Although I did enjoy the comedic scenes dispersed throughout, I wished the movie was more focused and had a longer running time because I felt like we saw the characters only at the surface. I wanted to see more tender moments between the lead character and his sister, the bond that the four friends had and the lost connection between the father and the son. I loved the metaphor involving photography and digging for clams and how the latter related to the emptiness of their lives. Rudd’s more serious roles are less known in his repertoire (“The Shape of Things” was one of his best) which is unfortunate because I feel like he has the talent to bring real gravity to his characters. In here, he portrayed an emotionally wounded person so well that I forgot that I was watching an actor. The silent moments with just him and his camera had a certain naturalistic feel to them; those were the moments when the picture was really at the top of its game. Written by Ken Marino and directed by Katherine Dieckmann, “Diggers” would have been a stronger film with a bit more alterations in the script in terms of character development. In parts, the movie was good but as a whole it just didn’t quite hold up for me. Nevertheless, I did admire the fact that the movie ended in such a way that it left me wanting more. It did a great job in drawing the line between having a clean-cut ending and having closure.
Road, The (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, “The Road” focused on a father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they traveled to the south of the United States, on foot, in hopes of finding a place where they could be safe from cannibals and starvation. A post-apocalyptic film in every respect, the look of the picture was very bleak–everything was grey and characters were covered in mud and grime. The only warmth that was present was the bond between the father and son as they evaded gangs who killed and ate people and who had stooped so low that they were willing to molest children. Mortensen did a great job portraying a father who wanted to be a model for his son just in case he met an untimely death. I was impressed because even though his character was nurturing (the mother, played by Charlize Theron, passed away), there was a certain toughness about him that was so precise when circumstances turned for the worst. On the other hand, I was very annoyed with Smit-McPhee’s character because he was so whiny about everything. For having a father who obviously tried his hardest to protect and provide for him, during the first half, the kid found every reason to whine and mope. I seriously wanted to shake (or punch) the kid to knock some sense into him. Fortunately, during the second half, he grew on me because he provided a much needed heart to the story, especially when they met an old man and a thief, Robert Duvall and Michael K. Williams, respectively. As much as this film was depressing, I didn’t think it was monotonous like some audiences suggested. I thought it was very suspenseful, especially the scene when the father and son went into a cellar to find the most horrific images. Strangely enough, I also thought it was hopeful because of the strong relationship between the two leads. They kept talking about a “fire” inside them (a religious implication, I’m not entirely sure) that helped them to continue their journey while at the same keeping their humanity. The tone was complex and it was definitely easy to get lost in bleak atmosphere if one was not emotionally invested in the characters. As the film came to an emotionally draining conclusion, I started to think about life and how it would eventually end for myself, my friends and my family. It just made me incredibly sad and I couldn’t help but turn on the waterworks. “The Road” may not have been as strong as critics expected it to be but it’s nonetheless a solid film with a heart despite the exploration of the darker side of humanity. There was something very poetic about the whole experience right from the start so I was glued all the way through.