Real Steel

Real Steel (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Shawn Levy
viewed: 10/23/2011

The “feel good” robot boxing movie of 2011.

Absurdly chock-full of cliche, sentiment, and sappy music, Real Steel didn’t look like a good bet.  It’s a boxing movie, made along the lines of genre staples, only this time the combatants are big robots.  Seeing the trailer over the summer, the kids seemed interested, though I grimly winced and hoped that this wouldn’t be something we’d have to see.  But then it got some pretty good reviews and I thought we’d give it a shot.

Loosely adapted from a Richard Matheson short story (and eventual episode of The Twilight Zone original series, “Steel”), the film opens in the near future (near enough to look exactly like our present) in which boxing has become too brutal for humans, so to allow for endless carnage, humanity has turned the WWE into the WRB (World Robot Boxing) league.  Despite that rather tenuous connection to the source material, you’d have been hard pressed to have made the association.

Hugh Jackman, a former boxer, now underground robot boxer owner, is shown on his way to a rodeo operated by a former opponent.  He sets his robot to wrestle a bull and his robot gets trashed.  Jackman is also a deadbeat dad, only his ex-girlfriend, mother of his 11 year old son (played by Dakota Goyo), has died, leaving him with the opportunity to hand the boy off to the boy’s aunt.  Well, Jackman, who has no use for a kid, manages to wrangle more money from the family but winds up with the boy through the summer.

One more robot down, creditors galore, he and the boy break into a junk yard to find pieces to build a new robot.  But the boy finds an old early generation sparring ‘bot called Atom, who turns out to be more than the sum of his parts (and some leftover parts from the two previous robots).  Atom can “shadow” someone, mimicking their moves, but more than that, he’s suggested to be sentient (though to the film’s credit, this is left as a subtle aspect of the story, which winds up adding depth to it.)

Atom goes from being sure dead meat (or the robot equivalent) to being a contender for the title of robot champion.  Classic boxing narrative: check.

The thing about the movie is that it does work, despite itself.  Director Shawn Levy (whose prior film credits include things like Cheaper by the Dozen (2003), The Pink Panther (2006), Night at the Museum (2006), Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009), and Date Night (2010)) often lets the emotional moments linger too long. The girlfriend is in tears of joy watching the boy who is in tears of joy, watching his dad in tears of joy…you get the idea.

Yet somehow, this ham-fisted story delivery works within the genre.  By the end of the film we were all rooting for Jackman and Atom and while I didn’t muster tears of joy, I did actually quite enjoy the damn thing.  Though Felix was a bit non-committal after the film, he was full of smiles at the sassy Goyo and Clara watched the final fight with clenched fists and intensity.

The effects are good, too, using real life “robots” for many close-ups and well-executed digital effects for the bigger action scenes.  Atom has a simple design with lit-up eyes and a strange scar-like laceration to the mesh of his face that gives him a subtle but effective smile.  The one thing the film holds back on is Atom as a thinking, possibly living thing, holding those cards close to the vest and I have to say that I think that is one of the keys to why this film wound up working so well for me.

I don’t know.  Go figure.  The boxing robot movie was actually pretty good.

Godzilla vs. Hedorah

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) movie poster

(1971) director Yoshimitsu Banno
viewed: 10/22/2011

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (a.k.a. Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) is certainly not Godzilla’s strongest moment.  It’s also probably not his weakest moment either.  It’s about ecology.  Pollution.  It’s “The Lorax” of the Godzilla franchise.

For my money, Godzilla’s best villains were Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) (a.k.a. Monster Zero (1964)) and Mechagodzilla (Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)).  But whether you’re fighting King Kong (King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)) or Mothra (Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), sometimes you have to take on the likes of Ebirah (Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster (1966), or Megalon, or, in this case, Hedorah.  Whereas Ebirah (the Sea Monster) is a giant crayfish, prawn or lobster, Hedorah is a mutated pollywog.  Mutated to love toxic fumes.

Godzilla himself is the result of toxic poisoning, mutated from a dinosaur egg by radiation from nuclear testing.  In some ways, Hedorah is a kindred spirit.  Only by this time, Godzilla stands with the people, not against them.  He’s no longer a resultant nature attacking the humanity that spawned him.  He’s now out there doing the social service of putting down this mutant amphibian, working with the humans (whose own technology to clean fix the problem fails them.)  His radioactive breath kick-starts the electronic blasts that manage to dehydrate Hedorah to death.

Of course, the question is posed again at the end: Is this the only Hedorah?  Or will there be more?

Hedorah, with his glowing red eyes and his inside body of muck, is moderately cool.  He’s cooler than Ebirah.  I ended up watching this one with Clara and the two girls from upstairs who had never seen a Godzilla movie before.  I had to assure them that it wasn’t going to be scary and that basically the good monster was going to beat up the bad monster in the end.  Really, that’s what all Godzilla movies are about, right?

Over the last 3 years, we’ve watched a number of the original series, the Showa series, of Godzilla films and I’m still keen to finish out the cycle.   There are a couple that aren’t available from Netflix (they haven’t been for whatever reason) so we’ve still got a couple outstanding.  For our Halloween “horror”-fest, at least one good movie featuring guys in rubber suits duking it our it a requisite.  And we have met it.

Phase IV

Phase IV (1974) movie poster

(1974) director Saul Bass
viewed: 10/21/2011

A very strange little science fiction/horror film here, from noted cinematic title sequence designer and general graphic design great Saul Bass.  It was the only feature film that he ever directed.

Avant-garde in its narrative, it takes a while to figure out exactly what this film really is.  It opens with a strange “unknown cosmic event” which influences the ants of the planet to stop fighting and to merge their goals.  The intelligence is a collective intelligence, but as actors of the elemental pieces of their landscape, they take on mankind.  The film is set in either Southern California or Arizona desert and takes quite a while before any people even show up.  The ants are real ants and the footage looks and feels often like pure documentary.

But that would be understating it considerably.  As low-budget as it is and with this strange adherence to a limited style of narrative, the film often casts some striking images, both highlighted contrasts of small ants against bright orange backdrops of the sun, high-contrast visions, and even some kind of interesting set design (the ants build these weird pipe-like towers).  It’s both unusual and incredibly effective.

It’s nothing quite like anything I’ve ever seen, but from what I’ve read, it does in some ways resemble a documentary from three years prior called The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971), which mixed close-up images of insects and some weird science fiction prophecy of doom or evolution.  And for my money, though the dialogue is limited and the production not so conducive to traditional acting, this film is an earnest endeavor.  And it also somewhat represents another aspect of 1970’s science fiction that I find interesting, this less cleanly narrative style in which very little is explained to the full degree and a lot is left for sensorial interpretation.

You’d look at that movie poster and be looking for something entirely different.  If you got this film looking for horror and gore and what-have-you, you’d be disappointed.  But as a very unusual, visually striking, science fiction film about “what if ants took over the world?”, you’d be barking up the right tree.

The Devil-Doll

The Devil-Doll (1936) movie poster

(1936) director Tod Browning
viewed: 10/16/2011

Anything from director Tod Browning is of note in my book.  The director of such strange and effecting classics like The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927), London After Midnight (1927), Dracula (1931), Freaks (1932), and Mark of the Vampire (1935), Browning rose to his success primarily in working with Lon Chaney, Sr.  His film London After Midnight is considered one of the great lost films.  His 1932 pre-code film Freaks is an epic cult film.  He started in the silents and ended in retirement not long after making The Devil-Doll, an indisputably B-movie, but filled with lots of weirdness.

The film opens as Lionel Barrymore and another man have escaped from prison.  Barrymore’s character is fixated on revenge on the bankers that ruined him, while the other man has been a bit of a mad scientist with a dream to solve the world’s food shortage by shrinking humans to 1/6th their natural size.  When the scientist dies before realizing his dream (though he does perfect the science of it), Barrymore absconds to Paris to use this shrinking technology to exact his revenge on his enemies.

While the film really doesn’t manage much in great shakes, the miniature special effects are actually very good.  Mostly made with split screens and fake giant props, the visual style is more effective than a lot of other films, probably with a much more substantial budget.  With a cross-dressing avenger and miniature human “dolls” exacting revenge, the film has a lot of the goodly elements that make for a pleasurable little flick.  While it doesn’t necessarily surpass the sum of its parts, its parts are quite entertaining.

Mad Love


Mad Love (1935) movie poster

(1935) director Karl Freund
viewed: 10/16/2011

Adapted from Maurice Renard’s story “The Hands of Orlac,” Karl Freund’s 1935 film, Mad Love, was star Peter Lorre’s first American film.  Freund, a noted cinematographer, manages a lot of gloom and atmosphere but seems less assured as director, I am noting, especially having just watched this film and his 1932 directorial debut, The Mummy.  Still, Mad Love has a lot going for it.

The film comes post-the Hollywood Code implementation but is still quite a lurid tale.  It opens with Lorre haunting a Grand Guignol style of theater, featuring a lovely beauty tortured and killed (in a play) for the audience.  This particularly titilates Lorre’s Dr. Gogol, who has a “mad love” for the star of the show.  When he finds out she is about to be wed, he is crushed, and buys a wax statue of her to take home with him.

Her husband is a talented and up and coming pianist who has his hands crushed in a tragic train crash.  The woman appeals to Drl. Gogol to do something to save her husband’s hands, and the doctor winds up giving him the hands of a knife-throwing killer who is put to death before his eyes.  You see, Gogol likes to visit executions.

The whole thing gets even more bizarre as the husband struggles with his new hands, which like to throw knives more than play the piano and Dr. Gogol tries to set him up as a fall guy for his own father’s murder.  The pianist is played by Colin Clive, most famous for playing the overwrought Dr. Frankenstein in Frankenstein (1931).  Part of Gogol’s plan is to dress himself in this freakish costume to pretend to be the resurrected murderer back from the dead.  He has robotic metal hands and a metal neck brace that gives him a queer sneer (the brace is to keep his head on post-guillotine.)

Aspects of the film’s manic darkness reminded me a bit of Doctor X (1931), which was actually released in a collection of DVDs that included Mad Love as well.  Doctor X turned out to be a real joy, and while Mad Love isn’t quite as fun as it, it’s a strange, Freudian thriller in its own right.

The Mummy

The Mummy (1932) movie poster

(1932) director Karl Freund
viewed: 10/14/2011

October being Halloween month, and hoping that some older horror films would be less frightening for the kids after Poltergeist (1982), we revisited the classics of Universal Pictures’ horror brigade.  A couple years ago, we watched a number of Universal’s “monster movies”  such as The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Son of Frankenstein (1939), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), The Wolf Man (1941), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Frankenstein (1931), but we hadn’t ever gotten to The Mummy (1932).

Directed by noted cinematographer Karl Freund, the film has lots of interesting camera movement and features a number of striking shots, probably none more iconic than the camera’s lingering stare upon the mummy’s face or the modern day mummy, Ardath Bey (both actually the inimitable Boris Karloff in amazing make-up),  But the story of Imhotep, a priest who was buried alive from attempting to raise his beautiful princess from the dead, brought back to life by the same magic in modern times isn’t quite as compelling as Frankenstein or Dracula (1931) or perhaps even The Wolf Man.  Though they did go on to make four sequels.

Zita Johann is quite compelling as the half-Egyptian daughter of a local mayor, the living embodiment of the dead princess.  And Karloff, he always makes things groovy.  But the mummy, wrapped in all its shroud, appears onscreen for only a moment (apparently the make-up was both painful and extremely time-consuming to put on), and so the lesser figure of Karloff as Ardath Bey is the primary “monster” through most of the film,  He may be undead, but he doesn’t cut quite the figure of the entombed version of himself.

The kids were pretty spooked by the atmosphere of the early part of the film, probably its strongest segment.  This is the part in which the curse is read, “death to whoever opens this casket” and yet shrugged off breaking the seal and awakening the corpse of Imhotep.  The subtle moments, awaiting the creeping terror are by far more frightening than what the film has in store at the end.

The funny thing was that the kids had recently seen the 1999 re-make of the film, which through digital effects and a bit of Indiana Jones into the picture.  Rather different things, indeed.


Moneyball (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Bennett Miller
viewed: 10/14/2011 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Moneyball is a good baseball movie.  Quite a good baseball movie.  Maybe not a great baseball movie.

I never read Michael Lewis’ 2003 book from which this film was adapted, though I’ve always heard it was a good read.  But I lived here in the Bay Area during the time of the events depicted and followed the A’s, not as closely as my hometown team the Giants, but I’ve always followed it.  In that way, in particular for me, it had an added level of interest.

The film stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the General Manager whiz for the Oakland A’s and his attempts to field a successful baseball team at a budget less than a quarter of the top tier teams in the league.  The film follows the 2002 season, which starts when the A’s lose three of their top players to free agency after losing the ALDS to the Yankees.  Pitt meets Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill), a Yale-educated economics guy who adheres to an outsider system of analyzing baseball success called Sabremetrics, which focuses on statistical analysis to target players that other teams would overlook, keen on “on base percentage” over things like fielding and raw talent.

The film takes quite a bit of license with the reality, Brand for instance isn’t a real person, but a composite of various assistants.  So, it would be interesting to know at least what Lewis reported on as the facts in his book.  But Beane had to fight the baseball traditionalists and a lot of other stuff to get this vision onto the field.  And then it was working.  The A’s went on a 20-game win streak, a record-breaking streak that vaulted them back into the playoffs and validated the sabremetric approach.

There is some irony in a baseball movie in which the heroes are the ones with the spreadsheets, not the traditional aspects of the game that give baseball so much of its flavor and character.  It would be typically easier to side with the gritty, old-school scouts who actually offer the film its richest, funniest moments.  It seems that they used a group of aging real scouts to play the team that Beane has to shake up with his radical thinking.  These guys are inimitable, talking about a guy’s face, the looks of his girlfriend, saying all kinds of arcane gobbletygook that it’s got to be real.  Best part of the movie for my money.

As Pitt as Beane says more than once in the film, “It’s hard not to get romantic about baseball.”  And like all good sports films, you do get caught up in the dramatics, even knowing what the outcome will be.  The film paints Beane as an uber-competitive, idiosyncratic baseball man but also as a caring, loving father.  And ultimately, Beane turned down the big dollars to go to work for the Boston Red Sox, who ended up fielding a World Series winning team that year,  to stay in California, not just for the A’s but for his daughter.  And Beane, of course, still runs the ship over on the other side of the bay.

It’s a good story, a good movie.  I think I will look to read the book now.

Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising (2009) movie poster

(2009) director Nicolas Winding Refn
viewed: 10/11/2011

After watching Drive (2011) and noting that I’d never seen any other of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s film, a friend recommended Valhalla Rising to me.  I recalled reading about Valhalla Rising when it was released, though I don’t think that I’d seen any trailers for it.  A film about pagan Vikings and Christian Highlanders, bloody battles, and a misguided attempt to join the Crusades, I wasn’t exactly sure what I thought about it from the outside.

What’s it about?  Interestingly the whole story is not so clearly elucidated.  Not much is explained, and as a result there is a lot of figuring out to do, interpreting.   Which I actually have to say I like in a film, though it might frustrate some.

Told in chapters or segments, the film opens with a tribe of highlanders who have a one-eyed man captured and chained, forced to fight brutally to the death against others.  No one speaks for a long time in the film, and though ultimately there is dialogue, the one-eyed man is a mute.  His character is beset by visions of blood and death, dreams, predictions, its not clear.  But he manages to escape and kill the horde that held him.  Except for a blonde, blue-eyed boy who had fed him.

They run into another tribe of men, Christians who are wanting to set out for the Holy Land to fight the good fight against the heathens.  Somehow they convince the man and the boy to join them.  Their ship becomes becalmed in a thick fog for some time and just as they are about to go mutinous and die, they find themselves in fresh water.

They believe that they’ve found the Holy Land but it’s clearly not the Middle East they’ve landed upon.  It’s green and lush, and they discover aboriginal above-ground graves that speak of the unknown holy rites of other cultures.  Eventually, they come into contact with these aboriginal peoples, often by being skewered by their arrows.

A mixture of religious zealot-ism, primitive visions of death, and fierce brutality rule their lives and instincts.  The boy seems to be able to read the mute one-eyed man’s mind.  And they believe that their new Holy Land is really Hell.

Despite some potential of magical realism, there is a definite adherence to a vision of natural realism.  The men of this time would be like this, brutal, pious, primitive in their understandings, superstitious and thus embedded in, for us, a surreal reality.  It’s not unlike Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) in a sense.

I also wondered about the intent of the story.  With chapter titles like “Wrath”, “Men of God”, “Hell”, and “Sacrifice”, trying to suss out the intended meaning of the film isn’t entirely easy.  At one point, the potentially pagan or non-Christian “One-Eye” almost seems a Christ figure of sorts.  A brutal killing-machine of a Christ figure, but he comes to lead without speaking a word.  The more even tempered of the warriors comes to realize that he might be their only hope of survival.

But the film also focuses on the hypocrisy of the brute devout.  There is a spiritualism in essence here, one perhaps pan-pagan?  Pre-Christian?  But in a violent, cruel world, wherein brutality is necessary for survival.

I shan’t sit pondering the meaning here forever.  It’s an interesting film.  Not typical, not rote, not entirely straight-forward.

Nostalgia for the Light

Nostalgia for the Light (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Patricio Guzmán
viewed: 10/10/2011

Contemplative and thought-provoking, the documentary Nostalgia for the Light peers into space and time, the deepest edges of which astronomers use massive telescopes to view.  But the film also peers into the muddy depths of a more recent history, the coup d’etat in Chile in 1973 that brought to power the murderous Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, the many people tortured and killed under his regime and the ongoing silence that mars Chile’s presence about this dark time not long in the past.

What brings these potentially distant topics together is the setting of the Atacama Desert, considered the most arid place on Earth.  For those looking into the sky, the clarity is better than anywhere else on the planet, adding impact of vision to these earthbound telescopes, whose tasks are to venture back in time.  The concept of looking “back in time” in Astronomy relates to the fact that though light travels at such a great speed, even the light of the sun takes time to reach us.  So the stars that we see, the moment of light that we see, actually occurred in the past.  And the further into space one looks, the further and further in time we “see”.

Both poetic and scientific, these concepts drive director Patricio Guzmán.  He opens the film on the opening of one of these massive telescopes and shares his personal connection to astronomy.  As he turns his gaze to the desert itself, this dry wasteland (rich as it has been in minerals), the comparison to the surface of a foreign planet is not a hard one to follow.  But beneath the cooked, cracked desert are many, many bodies of “the disappeared”.  And some of their loved ones continue to scour the desert for their bodies.

Due to the aridity, bodies do not decompose as they would in many other places, and a body of some ancient llama driver, millennia-old could show up almost as complete as one that had been left there in the last century.  The Pinochet government cruelly removed many of the bodies (or claimed to at least), saying that they tossed them into the ocean so that they could never be reclaimed.  One woman who shares the story of having found her brother’s foot, how even alone with that small fragment, connected in a way that mourners yearn for.

It’s a remarkable film in that sense.  While not at heart a post-modern discourse, it did actually bring me to mind of Jacques Derrida.  Not so much a “play” on concepts, but a deepening and enriching of these two potentially disparate foci.


Hanna (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Joe Wright
viewed: 10/09/2011

I’d never seen any of director Joe Wright’s previous films, Pride and Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007), or The Soloist (2009).  They sounded like lush literary adaptations or other Oscar fodder that never piqued my interest, and while they got good enough reviews, they weren’t about visionary film-making.  While from the trailers, Hanna looked quite different, not just in subject matter but style, I did kind of take into account that this was not a film by Luc Besson or Tom Twyker but by an somewhat undistinguished, though successful director seeming looking for something a little more radical.

The film opens in the isolated outreaches of the Arctic or sub-Arctic, in which a striking young girl with limpid blue eyes, hunts and kills a large deer or elk with a bow and arrow.  She hits it and then chases it until it collapses, and when she catches up with it, she tells it, “I just missed your heart,” and seemingly apologizes with a Luger-shot in the head.  Clearly not your average teenager.

She lives with her father (Eric Bana), who has trained her for a life of killing in this isolated place, elucidating facts of the world, fairy tales, and 1,000 ways to slay a foe with whatever is handy.  Their relationship is not so unlike that of Hit Girl and Big Daddy of last year’s Kick-Ass (2010), though with quite a bit of the humor and irony removed.  Still, these two girls could well get along.

Questions abound throughout the opening of the film, not unlike The Bourne Identity (2002) in a sense.  We’re not given all of the story elements to work with and that gives the narrative a good edge, not really having a sense of which way it will veer or what the real history between these two and CIA operative Cate Blanchett (who I usually really like except when she’s using this really bad Southern accent).  Blanchett is the baddie and that’s not too hard to figure out.  But their globe-trotting, winding paths that lead them to meet up in an abandoned amusement park (a terrific setting, Spreepark), will ultimately end up with some dead bodies.

The girl is the luminous Saoirse Ronan, who came to the fore in Wright’s Atonement.  She is so blond, so pale, so blue-eyed, that she appears onscreen like some apparition, like a fairy from another world, which well fits her character, this lovely young girl who only at some teenage year enters the real world.  She’s a compelling screen presence and a good character.

Wright pumps the film with music by the Chemical Brothers, giving a pulsing, uber-beat that keeps the energy moving throughout.  Maybe that is what brought by to mind of Tom Twyker and Run Lola Run (1998).  The film’s style is more “European” or “avant-garde”, both terms which I use with parentheses because that is how it feels, not such a clear description.  This is clearly not another Jane Austen film.  It’s about, as I heard someone say, “a girl who kicks ass”.

Despite a couple of more conventional moments of lighter humor, meant perhaps to brighten or deepen the spectrum of emotion in the film, it’s a pretty constant up and running thriller.  And you can see that it yearns to be the likes of someone different.  It’s easy to imagine Luc Besson sitting there, going “Wow, great movie!”  It’s been a long time since Besson made a film as good as this.  But he’d love the story and the character and the action.

Actually, I liked it quite well, perhaps a little despite myself and my preconceptions about Joe Wright.  Ronan is so striking, and the character is quite compelling, no matter how derivative the whole of the story might be from some perspectives.  She definitely kicks ass.  And the film pretty much kicks ass.  And no, I’m not calling for Hanna Meets Hit Girl.  But they should do lunch.