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.
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Four men with unconventional careers, Dave Hoover, a wild animal trainer, Raymond A. Mendez, a mole rat specialist, Rodney Brooks, a robot scientist, and George Mendonça, a topiary gardener, were the subjects of Errol Morris’ bizarre but magnetic documentary. It was a particularly challenging film to pull off because how the men defined their lives couldn’t be more different from one another. The director’s task was to find a way to highlight their similarities without being heavy-handed or reaching for something that wasn’t quite there. By constructing a collage of clips from classic serials released in theaters, playing in black and white and color gradients, using various types cameras, it successfully established an argument that even the most mundane could be transformed into something interesting given the right perspective. I was particularly interested in the fact that mole rats were mammals but they lived like termites. Most of us are familiar with the archetype of a mammal so the picture was a nice and humbling reminder of two things: How we take certain rules for granted in order to make some sense of the world and the mysteries of life ultimately help to drive our curious minds forward. Not fully knowing keeps us guessing so we have room to grow. Another layer added on top and around the mole rat scenario were the robots designed to act like insects. Unlike biology, how robots work is something I’m just not interested in despite my dependence on technology. When the robots were introduced, I expected to lose interest. But I didn’t. It surprised me because the film took a specific stance and stuck with it. That is, robots may be non-living but they are inspired by the living. Ironically, we could learn more about the living by observing and learning how the non-living worked. I never thought about it that way. The weaker half was the animal trainer’s fond memories of Clyde Beatty, a lion tamer who eventually went on to star in motion pictures, and gardener’s passion for cutting plants into images of animals. The former discussed the dangers of controlling creatures, like tigers, lions, and bears, that normally shouldn’t be controlled but I failed to grasp the implications it wanted to convey. There were too many old footages from the circus which didn’t help elevate the messages it wanted to bring to us. On the other hand, the latter felt more like a recollection of a man in his twilight years. I’m sure that filmmakers didn’t mean to but every time the fanciful plants appeared, I was reminded of the man’s obsession instead of his passion. There’s a subtle difference and I wish the filmmakers had a more solid grasp in terms of connecting Hoover and Mendonça’s careers to Mendez and Brooks’. Nevertheless, “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” had many wild ideas worth hearing and jaw-dropping images worth watching. If anything, it made me wish I had a pet mole rat.
I, Robot (2004)
★ / ★★★★
Detective Spooner (Will Smith) was assigned to investigate the suicide of Dr. Lanning, the main scientist in charge of commercialization of robots on 2035. Spooner suspected that the murder was staged to look as a suicide by a robot named Sonny (voiced by Alan Tudyk) and it was only the first step of the robots’ plan to take over the world. “I, Robot” completely missed the mark to make an intelligent film about humans’ increasing dependence on technology. Much of the movie was a predictable set-up to make the main character run after or shoot at something. The uninspired false alarms were transparent. For instance, early in the movie, Spooner saw a robot running with a purse. He thought it was trying to steal the purse. Naturally, smart audiences would most likely surmise it was simply delivering the purse to its rightful owner because no tension was established regarding rogue robots yet. Spooner looked like a fool because his fear was only in his mind. The scene would have been more effective if placed after the murder of the prominent scientist to serve as a small rising action, regardless of the pettiness of the crime, to make us believe that perhaps the robot was up to something more devious than it seemed. Another scientist that jumped into the mix of the mystery was Dr. Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) who, despite all the reasonable doubt placed in front of her, could not seem to make up her mind where to place her loyalty. For a character who was supposed to be the voice of reason regarding the advantages of having robots in the home or at work, her logic was flawed. Her character was tantamount to those horror movie characters who decided to look for something in a dark room during the most inopportune times. Her eventual acknowledgement that the detective was right to be suspicious of the robots felt too forced. Granted, I did admire the special and visual effects. There were two action sequences that I thought were exciting to watch. The first was when Spooner had to face about a hundred robots in an underground freeway while going about 125 miles per hour. The second was when the robots climbed on their manufacturer’s building in an attempt to stop Spooner and Dr. Calvin from ruining their revolution. I do have to say, however, that there was another glaring inconsistency concerning those two scenes. In the first, the detective had a very difficult time destroying the robots. He had to use his car, gun, and high speed to survive. But in the latter, he was able to use his hands to rip the robots apart. Finding out that Alex Proyas, who directed the slightly brilliant “Dark City,” directed this film was all the more disappointing. If the film’s special and visual effects had been stripped away, not a thing would have kept it afloat because it lacked heart and intelligence. I found it ironic that Haley Joel Osment in Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” and Arnold Schwarzenegger in James Cameron’s “The Terminator” were far more convincing robots despite the fact that they were played by actual humans.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as Tony Stark/Iron Man who is as narcissistic and self-centered as ever. This time around, he had to face-off with a Russian physicist (Mickey Rourke) who was out for revenge for the wrongs done to his father and an American weapons expert (Sam Rockwell) who craved power in politics. Tony also has to deal with his health, Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) being the new CEO of the company, a new sexy assistant (Scarlett Johansson), and Rhodey’s (Don Cheadle) need to deliver the Iron Man suit to his superiors. There was no doubt that “Iron Man 2” was bigger and grander than the original. However, I don’t believe it was one of those sequels that disappointed. What I loved about the first one was the fact that it was an origins story. The first hour bathed us in curiosity and the rest tried to explore the lead character’s depth (although we came to realize he didn’t have much depth at all–which I loved). In “Iron Man 2,” it was more about having fun with the main character and his big ego. I thought it was funny, exciting and I liked that it didn’t try to be darker or deeper than the original. In some ways, I had more fun with the sequel than its predecessor. I was also very into what was happening on screen because of the many hints of The Avengers slowly forming (make sure to stay until after the credits). The tone was different than other superhero films because it made me feel like the superhero that we were watching was not the only one in his universe. I also enjoyed Rourke as Whiplash. He wasn’t given much screen time but every time he was, he generated maximum impact. I thought he was menacing but at the same time I felt somewhat sorry for him. When I looked in his eyes, I saw pain and vulnerability trying to wrestle (pun intended) with anger and thirst for blood. One of this film’s drawbacks was it didn’t spend more time putting Rourke’s character on screen to add some sort of enigma and rivalry between him and Tony Stark. I absolutely loved the race track scene and when Stark visited Whiplash in jail. There was a certain crackle and pop between the two characters when they spoke to each other because Downey Jr. and Rourke knew how to play with certain subtleties in terms of intonations and body languages. Those scenes left me at awe and it’s unfortunate because small moments like the jail scene would probably be ignored since most scenes were loud and bright and glamorous. Bigger and louder isn’t necessarily a bad quality but as the “The Dark Knight” has proven, a nice balance between quiet moments and adrenaline rush makes a superior and ultimately unforgettable superhero film–not just a superhero film but a movie that has the power to stand alone in its own right. Directed by the very funny Jon Favreau, it was apparent that “Iron Man 2” had actors that had fun in their roles so I had fun with it as well. I loved that Favreau put himself in his own movie for kicks. I think most professional critics are wrong about this one because they claimed it was inferior to the first. But I’m saying see it and pretend as if it’s not a sequel. I have no doubt that you will recognize a really good movie in it.
★★★ / ★★★★
I have no idea why critics didn’t like this movie. I feel like they all read one really good negative review and they all jumped on the bandwagon. “Surrogates,” directed by Jonathan Mostow, was set at a time when humans could simply purchase a robot and use it as a surrogate to do whatever they wanted via a machine invented by Dr. Canter (James Cromwell). For years, everything was fine until an assassin killed the son (through his surrogate) of Dr. Canter using an advanced weapon. This immediately became a problem because people always thought that there was a fail-safe designed to protect them in the comforts of their homes. Agent Greer (Bruce Willis) and his partner Agent Peters (Radha Mitchell) were assigned to find out who the murderer was, what kind of weapon he had and who hired him. But that was just the surface of the mystery. I couldn’t help but compare this film to the dreadful “Gamer” because it basically had the same concept: living one’s life through another whether that particular “another” is sentient or not. I think “Surrogates” is far superior because it looked like it was set in the future, it brought up interesting questions about the difference between consciousness and actually living one’s life, there was a sense of urgency from beginning to end and it was actually entertaining without surroundering to the depravity of violence. I loved that the writers (Michael Ferris, John D. Broncata) chose to show us how Willis’ character was like when he used a surrogate (near the beginning of the picture) and how he was like without his surrogate (the majority of the picture). Making Willis’ character aware of the wrongness of the whole surrogacy situation (especially the scenes with his wife who’s addicted to using her much younger surrogate) and that he was capable of being hurt out in the world full of robots made us root for him. The action and chase scenes were surprisingly effective because the film constantly played on the suspense instead of just giving us one mindless explosion after another. There were also some very neat scenes that involved hijacking of surrogates which meant double identities and double-crosses were potentially abound. There were some twists that I didn’t see coming that sort of paved the way for some plot holes but I didn’t mind it because the movie was so much fun to watch. It was so creepy watching people acting like robots, especially when they would “deactivate” and looked as if they were in a catatonic state. “Surrogates” is not a perfect film but it’s not as terrible as critics claimed for it to be. It definitely had some great ideas that were executed quite nicely so I think it’s worth watching.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
★ / ★★★★
Everyone told me that this was probably the most pointless movie they’ve ever seen, but I decided to see it anyway because I wanted to judge it for myself. While I don’t think it’s one of the worst movies ever made, I do think it’s one of most unnecessarily long. With a running time of two hours and a half, there were too much action and not enough reasons why we should care for Sam (Shia LaBeouf) and the Autobots except for the fact that the Decepticons wanted the sun’s energy so that they could continue living. What I loved about the first “Transformers” was its sense of wonder. It hid the robots for pretty much half of the movie and developed some sort of heart and genuine funny moments with Sam. But in this picture, everyone’s simply shooting guns and running away in slow motion (especially Megan Fox, which I understand was the eye candy for guys). I also didn’t like the fact that Michael Bay, the director, kept adding unnecessary (and annoying) characters such as those played by Ramon Rodriguez as Sam’s new college roommate, Kevin Sunn and Julie White as Sam’s parents. Their pathetic attempts at comedy were so embarrassing. When I did laugh (or was it scoff?), I was laughing at the characters instead of with them because of their utter stupidity. No one in their right mind would do the things they did. It’s difficult for me because I do like to give credit for films that are ambitious and this is undeniably one of those films. I could feel it wanting to be “bigger and better” than the first but it doesn’t have a concept of overload. The many negatives far outweigh the very few positives. People who would most likely enjoy “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” are those who don’t want to think or even make sense of the plot. (I found myself very confused with pretty much half of the movie.) In other words, mindless action sequences with big explosions and women running around half-naked. That’s completely understandable. After all, sometimes movies are supposed to be pure escapism. I kind of like the fact that Bay still makes movies despite critics and audiences alike tell him that he makes the most brainless movies ever. It’s just that you can still have a popcorn action flick that is funny and intelligent. The writers and the filmmakers just have to try a little harder to put the right pieces together. This film coming out only two years after the first one, I think they rushed into it and made a very messy, very incomprehensible junk. I just hope the third one will be better (the standard is low) because it’s a shame that people actually pay to see something that they can see in a video game at home.