Saturday, October 8, 2011


Science, forget about flying cars and that cure for common cold and please get cracking on making robot prize fighting a reality. ROBOTS! PRIZEFIGHTING!  You'd think that sort of thing has universal appeal, but Rotten Tomatoes' verdict on Real Steel is, "Silly premise notwithstanding, this is a well-made Hollywood movie."


Which part of 8-ft monsters of steel beating the shit out of each other (occasionally in slow-mo) for our entertainment is a "silly" premise? I'd pay good money to make this happen. So stop douching out on us, RT.

The year is 2020 and robots have replaces humans in the boxing ring. Hugh Jackman is a small-time robot promoter (beater-upper? handler? guy who controls the remote control  for the fighter-bots?) who was once an almost-boxing champion before robots replaced him and his ilk. Troubled with financial issues and a thoughtless approach to bot-boxing, he leads a hand-to-mouth existence till his illegitimate son is foisted on him. His son turns out to have that same stubborn streak and passion for boxing as him. The kid finds an ancient robot (Atom) in a junkyard, which Jackman reluctantly enters into underground boxing matches and surprise, surprise, Atom turns out to be the Seabiscuit of boxing robots with a talent for taking a proper beating and then giving it back good. In the process, Jackman and kid do some serious father-son bonding.

I know, this whole career-oriented/macho man forced to care for a smart alec child theme is trite [The Game Plan (2007), The Pacifier (2005), Daddy Day Care (2003), Big Daddy (1999), Liar Liar (1997), Mr. Nanny (1993), Fatherhood (1993), Kindergarten Cop (1990)]. Besides, apart from the Fannings, precocious children in film are a vile, vomit-inducing group.  Which is why a normal little kid who is stubborn, curious, rude and constantly ODs on comic books and soda makes for a nice change. Also, can we take a moment to pause and reflect on that buff, aviator-rocking hunk of yumminess called Hugh Jackman?

It's not like anybody is going to read this caption anyway.

There was a long queue to do this. Worth it.

Okay, where were we?

Obviously, Real Steel didn't have the greatest character development ever seen on film, and if one were to nitpick, one could find a plot hole or five.  Hugh Jackman and son hate each other because he's just a money-grubbing rascal and then, when the climax showdown scene is 3 minutes away, he suddenly begins to care. We've seen this a dozen times. It is also pretty ridiculous when a small child uses only his powers of cuteness and sugar high to indulge in complicated robot-hot rodding (alas, if only 10 cans of Dr. Pepper could give one an epiphany). And yes, since all evidence suggesting that the robots were just machines slightly superior to your washing machine, it is highly improbable that Atom magically became self-aware, especially when they give us no reason for this to be a possibility.

I thought that little background they give us about robot-boxing was interesting. When robots initially replaced humans in boxing games, they tried to keep them as human-looking as possible, but then they realised that people didn't want to see uncanny valley residents. People wanted proper violence and lots of it, so robots started losing their human resemblance and began to mimic Transformer toys.  Atom, being an older-generation robot, still bore resemblance to humans (think Eva meets Bumblebee). But is that what really draws us to underdogs? Their human qualities?  Noisy Boy was a really cool robot and Zeus was easily the greatest robot ever created, and yet, it was Atom with his tenaciousness, robot dancing, big blue eyes (which make you wince every time he's hit) and his "human" style of bot-boxing, that ended up as the favourite. So I understand why they needed Atom to be self-aware. Otherwise, it's like asking the audience to root for a refrigerator. I just feel that the film would have worked better if they had left it a mystery: just the kid's desperate yearning for Atom to be self-aware or implied that Atom's self-awareness was just his imagination, but never actually showed us a self-aware Atom. A self-aware robot pretty much destroys the very foundation of the film and leaves too many unanswered questions. But if they had built on humanity's desire to name our ships, cars and computers, give these bits of metal and plastic emotional value and even assign them human qualities, this film  could have struck a very deep chord, without becoming silly.

All said and done, I immensely enjoyed this movie.  Perhaps it was because it wasn't just another lazy attempt to make money. Or perhaps it was the beautifully captured shadow boxing scenes. Or perhaps it was that ridiculously awesome soundtrack. But most likely it was the utter gorgeousness of Jackman's muscly forearms.

Monday, October 3, 2011

THE HELP (2011)

You know how Hollywood’s idea of an endearing female lead is a pretty, thin, amazing girl whose only faults are watching her weight and being adorably clumsy? Somebody decided to shake things up a little for the modern ladyfolk and gave us that wonderful category: The Non Rom-Com Chick Flick. And it’s a thriving industry too: Mona Lisa Smile, The Blind Side, Julie and Julia, Amelia, Eat Pray Love, Whip It and most recently, Bridesmaids. Some were a breath of fresh air, others reek of the same, tired garbage.  It’s always a choice between the jerk boyfriend/society ladies’ approval and a super-duper career/kind and selfless act, isn’t it? Oh woe is me, how is one supposed to choose?

The latest offender is The Help. Set in 1960s’ Mississippi, young unmarried Skeeter Phelan is shocked by her friends’ campaign to build separate bathrooms outside the house for the African-American servants. Instead of quietly embroidering her trousseau and finding herself a man, she decides to write a book (anonymously), compiling the experiences of the maids– the good, the bad and the horrible. But if anybody finds out, she stands to lose her social status and the maids, their livelihoods.

To give credit where it is due, the book this movie is based on is an engaging read. There is no single protagonist, and there is no White Heroine benevolently scattering largess to the downtrodden ethnic minority.  The tone of the book treads a line between funny and horrifying, because the stakes are that high. Lynching is a reality, and common too. One word from a white employer and a maid and her entire family’s livelihood is ruined. People get their tongues cut off.  The racism isn’t just the obvious acts like segregation, but insidious things like not letting your fingers touch the maid’s when she hands you coffee, having a separate plate and cup for her to use– the kind that nobody really notices or thinks is a problem.

Racism in ’60s Mississippi is not a light-hearted subject, and certainly should not focus on a pretty white woman who was like, totally a feminist and civil rights activist and showed all those prissy white folk how them liberals roll. Emma Stone getting the biggest cut of the screen time and being the protagonist completely destroyed the foundation of the story. What does she have at stake? No boy in Jackson would marry her and the society ladies would throw her out of the bridge club if they found out she was associating with maids. Boo-fricking-hoo.

The real story is about the brave maids who put their families and themselves on the chopping block to tell their stories. Unfortunately, this film simply did not convey that sense of danger and the tense atmosphere they lived in. Apart from one throwaway mention about a lynching, the characters seem more concerned with boyfriends and frenemies. Even though the maids are the ones risking everything, only two of them get any semblance of a backstory. The climax of the film was centred around the cardboard cutout villain queen bee’s hissy fit.

What irritated me the most was that the film never had the courage to follow through on premise of the book.  It always remained superficial, and as I mentioned before, comic in tone. The most egregious lapse to me was the story arc related to Skeeter’s maid’s fate, where the plot was changed from the book and as a result, became pointless (sorry, can’t reveal it without giving away spoilers).  A number of superfluous characters were retained in the movie to maintain similarity to the book, but the film simply failed to capture the soul of the book.  Once the maid’s interviews are published, there’s a bit of unpleasantness for about five minutes and everybody goes on with their lives.  In the book, the publication of the interviews is only the start of weeks and months of fear and the bitter reaping of consequences.

But fortunately, some Hollywood executive realized that lynching and torture are heavy subjects, simply not suited for us fragile womenfolk.  Us gals would obviously prefer a frothy film for Girls Night Out, to work up a thirst for cosmos after.

If you have not read the book, you wont hate the movie, because you wont see the wasted potential. There is no doubt that all the actors performed admirably, and the film definitely had its moments but ultimately, it failed for me because of its spineless script. On the plus side, at least now we know what the lovechild of American History X and Mean Girls looks like.