Sunday, 31 July 2016

Real Steel

REAL STEEL (2011) is not a remake, although it feels like one, partly due to the previous adaptation of Richard Matheson’s story Steel for a Twilight Zone episode in 1963, and partly because the producer Steven Spielberg has dealt with fighting robots before in A.I. (2001). Here it is 2020, where clunky ‘Ambush’ is wrecked in a small town bullfight, and the Japanned replacement bot ‘Noisy Boy’, loses its first match so it needs repairs that remote-control operator, full-time failure, and reluctant father Charlie (Hugh Jackman, failing to carry a leading role, yet again) can’t afford.  

Now he’s stuck with custody of his 11-year-old son, for a road movie, with boxing mecha interludes, that everyone involved somehow imagines is an awesome blockbuster super-toy (to last all summer long) that’s oh so cool it’s positively hypothermic. Bailey (Evangeline Lilly, TV’s Lost) is the techie who owns a rundown gym; but she can’t bring any warmth or humanity to a scenario vacancy that’s Robot Jox meets Transformers, with robo-Rocky asides, and all the testosterone thrills of beeping arcade video games. The mind–numbing predictability of its father/ son relationship reconciliation is made worse when the kid’s a winner, dad’s such a loser, and everything is going to work out so the grotesquely Hollywooden, shamelessly tearjerker style happy ending is inevitable.

Director Shawn Levy (CGI–laden Night At The Museum comedies, Pink Panther remake) keeps the machines running on a soda-pop high from scrap-yard challenges to the big leagues of New York arena bouts, while a sentimentalised variant of Terminator 2’s young John Connor mentored by Schwarzenegger’s reprogrammed assassin makeover is turned into utterly cringe-worthy tripe by twin ailments of Disneyfication and Spielbergitis. There’s less room here for ‘characters’ than you get in a Twitter post, and the cliché–magnet plot is blatantly easy to summarise as a one–liner. In a montage-riddled climax, junk bot Atom becomes the best brawler, too self-consciously amazing as a painfully obvious Tin-man/ little toaster that could, who beats all the odds against autonomous champ, the mighty Zeus. Yes, it’s an A–Z of aahhh... aw shucks, or - perhaps, urgh! A sequel is on standby.

Saturday, 23 July 2016


“How many names do I need?” CONAN THE BARBARIAN (2011) is director Marcus Nispel’s remake of John Milius’ 30-year-old classic vehicle for Schwarznegger. German–born Nispel has carved out his Hollywood career on post-millennial updates of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday The 13th, Frankenstein (TV from a Koontz ‘concept’), and peculiar lost–Viking adventure Pathfinder (based upon a Norwegian original).

Born via battlefield C-section, the hero of this movie version of Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian champion is played by Jason Momoa (from Stargate Atlantis). His unfortunately–doomed father is portrayed by Ron Perlman (making Conan the ‘son’ of Hellboy!, Eh?). It starts in a Cimmerian village where, after his day of chores, boy Conan takes a shortcut during local warrior wannabes’ egg-in-mouth race home. He survives an ambush, and collects four heads, but he’s not ready for a sword until the village is attacked in a storm of blood and fire and that familiar rain-of-arrows cliché.

Bad guy Zym (Stephen Lang, ex-killer of Smurfs-on-acid in Avatar), re–assembles the bone shards of a powerful face–hugger mask to make himself a god, and resurrect his beloved. Having lost the invasion battle, there is further horror when Conan’s dad is doused in molten steel. Once grown up, Conan and his chums free a bunch of slaves, and then our muscular champ saves elusive pureblood ‘monk’, Tamara (Rachel Nichols; P2, G.I. Joe, Continuum), in the slick yet rather characterless mayhem of numerous action set–pieces happening amidst fairytale picture–book scenery. Whether he is killing or carousing (“I live, I love, I slay”), Momoa wins this month’s award for best ‘sneer with eyebrows’ performance. Rose McGowan (from Planet Terror) is venomously witchy as the top villain’s daughter Marique, who conjures up a sand wraiths’ kung fu melee, while shirtless Conan strikes his comicbook poses in strap–on rags.

Nispel is so fanatically intent on presenting stunts and special effects that lucid storytelling is neglected, and it falls to stilted unwashed dialogue and blunt flashbacks to carry the mediocre plot. Sadly, the filmmakers ‘forgot’ there needs to be an intriguing mythical dimension (which the original Arnie flick had plenty of!) to swordplay adventures like this. Empty spectacle is never appealing enough to fully entertain and this Conan fails the same way that Mike Newell’s clunky Prince Of Persia failed. It rattles hollowly and thoughtlessly along with nothing much to say about barbaric heroism or vengeance, and clearly no idea how to make up for its shortcomings with only the studio toolkit and high grade production values as commendable assets. “Behold, and despair!”

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Caped crusader

“One man can still make a difference.” Somewhere in the vast comicbook continuum, between Unbreakable and Batman, Tom Wheeler’s THE CAPE (2011) cleverly distils generations of superhero lore, while adding some postmodern influences as its secret ingredient.

Vince Faraday (David Lyons, Ozploitation flick Storm Warning) is the proverbial good cop framed for murder. With fanfare cued appearances in Palm City, Faraday turns crusader as the Cape - opposing corporate psycho Fleming, the super-villain alias, Chess (James Frain, Tron: Legacy), who intends privatisation/ takeover of every authority. He’s sick and twisted but not even a genius. 

Keith David heads the local carnival underworld of bank robbers and he becomes our outlaw hero’s mentor. Summer Glau brings genre-favourite appeal to her sidekick role as techie/ spy Orwell (who drives a flashy gull-wing Mercedes). Vinnie Jones is a repeat offender as campy snake–faced (“Wot choo lookin’ at?”) mobster ‘Scales’. My sandwich broker says that hammy acting and cheesy plots should not be mixed on a morally wholesome bread ‘n’ butter adventure like this, but it does make a tasty TV snack.

Significant borrowings from the futuristic satire of RoboCop (especially its spin-off TV show) are noticeable. Throughout its meagre ten–episode season, The Cape’s Palm City contrasts the gleaming spires of Metropolis with gritty Gotham alleyways as varied backdrops for a low–budget, yet briskly paced, telefantasy action series. There’s a tarot pack of villainy in the secret society of killers. The cape’s original owner (Thomas Kretschmann, later seen in Argento’s Dracula 3D) returns to provide back-story to the mystery but he’s a bit too chatty and unmotivated for his plans to succeed. Apart from obvious parallels of jokey circus stereotypes with costumed superheroes, the basic season–arc theme is typical friction between white-collar crooks and blue-collar thugs.

The main point of soapy irritation is a flashback surplus with parental bonding of Faraday and his young son. The hero and villains socialise through their inner–child parade for the masquerade party aboard a runaway train. Mena Suvari guests as vengeful savant Dice. Elliott Gould plays Chess’ doctor/ shrink. Fake deaths paralyse Palm City folk: “Terrorist zombies? Now that’s a bad combination.”

A drug-trip nightmare wedding ceremony in an asylum for captive Orwell distinguishes two-parter The Lich, while Razer sees Faraday going undercover to impersonate a bomb-maker. Genre interest wanes whenever producers try making straightforward drama of eccentrics, weirdoes and madmen, and their storylines start slipping into clichéd soap opera, as Heroes so often did. Inevitably, there’s a big showdown and yet, also predictably, the chief baddie Fleming wriggles away to escape justice. This is no copycat of Kick-Ass or Super, because The Cape isn’t cheaply jaded, or bitterly ironic, and presents a trad comicbook style with a retro feel that’s modestly entertaining.

Saturday, 9 July 2016


Everyone’s dream is to reach the next level; to be far more than ordinary. LIMITLESS (2011) sees author Eddie struggling through writer’s block, until acquiring a stash of designer drugs which increase his potential, radically. The enhanced-Eddie’s brain upgrade runs intelligence at peak efficiency; focused learning and problem-solving-energy that’s on with a capital O, capital N. Total recall, clarity of thought, spiky reasoning, fresh perspectives, and vaulting imagination but human nature’s sys op is hampered by greed. On NZT pills, Eddie becomes New York City’s wonder boy. A high flyer, go–getter, and jet–setter, he’s making headlines until - suddenly, his life moves so swiftly he can’t keep up and a burn-out seems inevitable, more so when he’s facing a final test (working De Niro) of outsmarting the crooked capitalist Van Loon.  

Despite its blatant symbolism – an inverted camera shows Eddie’s world turned upside down, Neil Burger’s SF thriller boasts a likeable star (Bradley Cooper, A-Team remake, Midnight Meat Train, Alias TV series) ably portraying the mental crashes of an addict off his smart meds, even though he’s less convincing as a born-again genius. The narrative climax is a bloodily violent interrogation and subsequent getaway, that follows genre references to Flowers For Algernon (see also Charly, Lawnmower Man), and The Man Who Fell To Earth, while toying with allegories of Lazarus and Icarus, and yet it is really nothing more than Wall Street rebooted as sci-fi suspenser.

Eddie fails to go further than corporate–merger broker, overlooking the fact that no matter how quick a student he is, there’s just no substitute for the kind of hard-won experience that produces genuine wisdom. The DVD has two versions of a happy ending, the better/ preferred choice of which also manages a neat and uncanny trick of quietly dramatising a face-to-face handover of power between Van Loon - representing the corrupt old guard of 20th century saps, and fast Eddie who is aiming much higher as possibly the next stage in human evolution.

Since I wrote this movie review five years ago, there’s been a spin-off TV series but it was cancelled after one season (to be released on DVD, 22nd August).