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REAL STEEL

March 12, 2012 (DVD)
Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, and Atom in 'Real Steel'

Real Steel is one of those movies that I intended to see in theaters and tried several times to get there but just never quite made it. And after that, time just kept moving and I prioritized other titles over it. But finally, earlier this month, I remembered how much I wanted to see it and made it happen. There’s not a single thing about the premise of the film that would discourage me: rock’em sock’em robots, father-son relationship story, plus Hugh Jackman with just a bit of an edge. How could it go wrong?

It just so happened that Dyl Pickle was spending a Spring Break night with me before I had to return Real Steel to the DVD kiosk, and I was thrilled to learn that it would be mostly appropriate for him to watch with me. I thought he’d love the robots and the bot-boxing, and I hoped that the slower moments of drama would be short so that D didn’t get bored. So we watched this movie together. D was into it pretty well at first, but around the midway point he started getting bored enough to want to do some “art.” I made up for his lesser enthusiasm by bouncing in my seat a lot and punching the air along with the bots. D had to repeatedly tell me that it was “just a movie” and that I shouldn’t be imitating what was happening on screen. Ha! He’ll learn, as we see more grown-up films together, that I’m very interactive in my movie-watching! With Real Steel, I was totally lost in the rock’em sock’em!

Hugh Jackman is terrific as a deadbeat dad forced to find a relationship with his pre-teen son, and watching him in the boxing scenes (where he performed the punches and footwork for a robot to mimic in the ring) made me greatly desire to see him in a human boxing role. Sure, he’ll get beaten to a pulp, but Jackman had such great finesse in Steel that I just really want to see him take that into the ring himself. The boy who played his son, Dakota Goyo, also gave a very strong performance, and his scenes with the bot named Atom (which his character rescued and restored from a scrap heap) were the very best moments of the film. Not since WALL·E have I had such great affection for a machine! But Atom was an incredible character in his own right. Which is what makes Real Steel such a success, I believe. The robots had as much personality as any human in the film, and sometimes even more, and that made for an exciting viewing experience that was deepened by a tremendous amount of goodness and heart. Even with a few “mild” expletives, Real Steel is truly a family film, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to find those from Hollywood these days.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

March 26, 2012 (DVD)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
 

My first response upon learning there would be yet another Planet of the Apes film was, “Why?!? Have we not suffered enough?” I could never find any love for the original film with Charlton Heston nor the seemingly endless franchise it created, and even when I tried to give the concept a chance through a modern retelling I was subjected to the debacle of a tedious reboot starring Mark Wahlberg. It’s not the idea of it, either – I actually adore the idea of a society where primates have evolved into human-like creatures and now have majority rule – but I’ve never been able to get past the hokey presentation of the stories. A new origin story just didn’t appeal to me. But then I saw the first trailers for last year’s offering, and something about it fascinated me anyway. I couldn’t quite get the images out of my mind, and when it became a surprise hit, I decided to put it on my rental list and wait for the day when I was ready to give it another chance. Imagine my shock when Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with James Franco (of all people) as the lead actor, turned out to be far beyond anything I would ever expect.

Rise of the Apes succeeds for one huge reason: motion-capture animation of a performance by Andy Serkis. Serkis definitely proved his talent for motion-capture with his creation of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and then again with his portrayal of King Kong in Peter Jackson’s remake. I’m quick to embrace any digital character that is based on Serkis’s acting because I know it will add enormous value to a film. Giving him, what I consider, the lead role in Rise was a genius move that immediately elevated the production. I think that’s what stuck with me in the previews: the tender, lifelike quality of the digitally-rendered chimpanzee who would become the leader of a rebellion of apes. It didn’t sell me on the movie, but it certainly became my primary reason for being interested at all. What I never expected was to find such love for this ape named Caesar, nor to be overwhelmed with so much sympathy that I rooted for his rise against humanity. That, I believe, is the triumph of this latest film.

Rise is definitely a popcorn flick, full of raucous action and big stunts, but the performance by Serkis as Caesar places a tender heart into the film and carries it beyond anything that has come before in the franchise. I loved the use of a science experiment (for a very personal medical reason) as the origin story for the apes’ evolution, and I loved that the story gave itself plenty of time to show a “natural” transformation for Caesar from highly intelligent chimp raised in a human home environment to alpha leader of a primate rebellion against their human oppressors, all the while learning to speak(!) in the process. When Caesar utters his first human words, I was completely shocked and excited and bought every single utterance as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I would not have embraced that had the movie not been crafted so well as to provide a true journey for Caesar.

This movie really is the story of Caesar, eventual leader of the apes who come to rule over humans, and the tale is surprisingly moving. I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but I’m ready for a new Apes franchise that continues Caesar’s story. So long as Andy Serkis is allowed to portray the apes, I’m completely and totally on board.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
movie stills via IMDB

SUPER 8

March 11, 2012 (DVD)
 
Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney in 'Super 8'
 

My love for J.J. Abrams made me want to see Super 8, and the casting of Kyle Chandler, coupled with a story about kids and a super-secret “creature”, cemented that desire. Even when critics lamented its less-than-satisfactory “reveal” I still knew the movie would be for me. Later, when a teen girl’s Facebook post summed up her viewing as “two hours that I’ll never get back,” I only questioned my interest for just one moment. But then my disappointment in Cowboys & Aliens caused me to take a step back and truly ponder if Super 8 might not fail me, too. But I couldn’t let go of the fact that this was a movie about young teens who encounter some sort of unexplained phenomenon; E.T. holds a tight grip on my heart, after all. And so, even though I know there will never be another E.T., I finally rented Super 8 and gave it an honest chance. My conclusion? AWESOME. Awesome in every way that I wanted it to be.

Super 8 is a fun movie. It’s meant to be a FUN movie! The story follows a group of young teenagers in 1979 as they shoot their own Super 8 movie (about zombies, no less!) and in the process witness a train derailment that sets loose a “monster.” But this isn’t some benign extra-terrestrial. It’s vicious and on a rampage, so the majority of the film involves military maneuvers to capture the creature and contain the situation while keeping the small-town folk in the dark. Yet another reason I equated the movie to E.T.; the similarities are also very evident in tone and cinematography. But none of that is what makes Super 8 so cool. It’s the kids that make the movie awesome. It’s the fact that they spend the entire time running around screaming, as you might expect, but also that they decide to run toward the danger because they’re fearless and they desperately want to solve the mystery of what exactly is going on. Super 8 shows kids as kids truly are: inquisitive, unrelenting, creative, and yes, fearless. It’s one of the most natural portrayals of teens I’ve seen in a very long time, and the things that usually bother me in other films (specifically, profanity and crude dialogue) just didn’t seem to faze me as much because I remember being these kids! Everything about their behavior was completely accurate and totally unforced. Especially engaging are young Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney, whose characters begin to forge a sweet little romance in the midst of the chaos. The movie also features a great undertone about the struggles of single fathers to connect with their children, as well as beautiful moments of honesty between young male friends. There is heart in this movie, even as I found actual scream-out-loud moments that made me laugh at myself. All of these things make Super 8 incredibly fun to watch.

Topping off everything else, I think the ending might have been the very best part of the film. I don’t mean the conclusion of the story – that was a bit melodramatic, actually – but rather, the closing credits. As the credits roll we are treated to the full and complete 8mm movie that the kids were filming… the complete ZOMBIE movie. And it’s awesome in every possible way. Seeing that, after all that had gone before… how could I not love Super 8?

movie still via IMDB

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