MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. The Rest: Real Steel, Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008), Welcome to L.A.

REAL STEEL (Also 2 disc Blu-ray/DVD combo) (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Shawn Levy, 2011 (Walt Disney)
Real Steel is a big juicy chunk of robot/boxer/schmaltz, a corny-movie slumgullion that throws Rocky and The Champ and the Transformers shows, and others, into the stew, concocted by formula, done by experts. Indeed, the film‘s very expertise, what you’d expect from the pros making it — is part of what makes it irritating, as well as entertaining.
Real Steel, which is about as real-looking and feeling as the top-of-the-line video game it mostly resembles, boasts an ensemble of top Hollywood artist/technicians — from  Robert ZemeckisSteven Spielberg and the other producers and executive producers, to director Shawn Levy on down — operating seemingly without excessive financial worry or (probably) too much studio interference, to create a tale about huge eight foot robots slugging it out in the ring, in a future time where humans no longer box themselves but leave it to these gigantic knockout machines to maul each other for the crowd‘s amusement.
In this future world, a broken down blue-eyed robot named Atom is rescued from the junk heap by a feisty11-year-old kid (Dakota Bovo as Mat) and his rascally debt-ridden fight-promoter dad (Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton). They in turn, befriend and coach Atom and send him out into the giant-robot boxing rings, to duke it out with a series of metal behemoths, score a series of improbable victories, and finally, in the climactic bout, go up against the fearsome towering green-eyed champ Zeus. There’s also a love interest (Evangeline Lilly as Bailley, gym manager/mechanic/heart-throb), and some villains, and, of course, final redemption, as scored by Danny Elfman.
It’s hard to imagine Real Steel being filmed much better than it is here, though you could hope for a script fresher, wittier and less obvious than the one credited here to John Gatins (Coach Carter), a screenplay that hits most of the right buttons but without the kind of mad invention and inspiration this robot-Rocky movie needs. The source is good: a 1956 story “Steel” by that excellent fantasy and science fiction writer Richard Matheson, who was also the author behind the movies Somewhere in Time and What Dreams May Come. “Steel” was later made into one of the most famous of all “Twilight Zone” episodes, with Lee Marvin as a human who enters the future boxing ring disguised as a robot/android boxer. Little of that story remains in Real Steel, which may be a shame. (I’d like to see a new movie, science fictional or not, that had a role for a Lee Marvin.)
Marvin might have played Charlie, of course (and in his last few years, maybe he could have played Atom), and he probably would have made him more likable than the Australian star Jackman does. (Jackman would have been better than Marvin, of course, in Paint Your Wagon.) One unusual element of Real Steel is the unflinching way it portrays the churlishness of Jackman as Charlie: a bad father, a failed fighter and a bad fight promoter who also has a shaky American accent.
Reckless, selfish ex-boxer Charlie, who owes about $100,000 to impatient creditors, deserted Mat’s late mother long ago, and he’s only back in his son/s life now, because Mat‘s rich aunt (Hope Davis) who wants custody of the boy, is paying Charlie for the summer, so she and her rich hubby (James Rebhorn) can vacation in childless luxury for a while longer. And Mat, of course, resents that.
Part of the reason for the darker treatment of Charlie is the fact that the kid is the real hero, along with the robot. Though Charlie, in the end, does something admirable, it’s through their influence.
With the exception of Date Night, which had the benefit of Tina Fey and Steve Carell, Shawn Levy has mostly directed movies I would rather have missed — like the amazingly humorless Pink Panther remake and the various overblown Nights at the Museum. Levy is a director who keeps things big and bright and comically lucid, but doesn‘t get much humanity or depth or surprise. If there’s a little more of those latter qualities here and, if this movie works a bit better than his others, it may be because Real Steel, for all its schmatz and shtick, has a prankish humanistic epic quality that allows it to subvert its own clichés. It has a little more heart, too.
I can’t buy the whole giant robot premise here though, because those robot fights in huge cages strike me as spectacles without empathy. Oddly though, Levy and company do manage to humanize the robots a bit, to make them fallible and sympathetic as well as scary and clankingly monstrous, and that‘s why the movie works as well as it does. Then again, I confess I‘d rather see “Steel,” or almost any Twilight Zone, even thought Rod Serling’s robots or androids are smaller and less expensive. The problem with all too many movies these days, including this one, is that they just cost too damned much, and are too technologically complex to really move or amuse you. And it’s too easy to knock them down.



“Journey to the Center of the Earth” (Blu-ray/3D/DVD Combo) (Two and a half stars)
U.S.; Eric Brevig, 2008 (New Line) 

     Once again, we plunge with French science fiction author Jules Verne and his intrepid fictional explorers, into the mysterious bowels of the earth, finding in plentiful supply Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit-hole tumbles, roller-coaster thrill rides, and King Kong creatures running amok. The visual effects rule here, along with Brendan Fraser (a good star-hero for this kind of movie) and Verne himself, whose imagination remains more transcendent (almost) than the real thing.

The script is silly; Fraser’s hot-to-trot Trevor Anderson is accompanied by a juvenile, his son (Josh Hutcherson) and a Swedish bombshell (Anita Briem), two characters who almost make you long for the 1959 Henry Levin movie’s two-three punch of Pat Boone and Arlene Dahl. But those CGI coups are really something. And Fraser reacts to them with the right wide-eyed panache.


From MGM United Artists 

WELCOME TO L.A. (Three Stars)
U.S.: Alan Rudolph, 1977 (Metro Goldwyn Mayer Limited Edition Collection)
Most pretentious dramas about Los Angeles decadence try to make sexuality and lust into the flaws that rot the souls of the city’s people and bring the house down. That makes sense: There’s a lot of screwing in L.A., “The City of One Night Stands,“ as one soundtrack song here puts it, and the pleasure domain that Ben Hecht, I think, once described as the Olympic games of sex. But Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L. A. is a hard-core ’70s movie, which means that Rudolph, like many of his colleagues back then, sees sex (and art) as more salvation than sin, and money and straight society as life’s real curses.
 In many ways, this is an Altman-style ensemble film. And the ensemble here — either inescapably neurotic or personally driven or too rich or too lazy — wander around L. A. in a kind of narcissistic trance state, while Keith Carradine, playing a rich kid who writes songs, and Richard Baskin (as the singer and studio musician recording them) croon and play an album’s worth of Baskin’s low-key, wistfully contemporary anti-love ballads, which sound like Leonard Cohen Lite — including of course “Welcome to L.A.” (Carradine, interestingly, sings them better than Baskin; Keith’s melancholy rendition of the title song is particularly good.)
The moral, not a very convincing one: Life among the beautiful people isn’t always beautiful, unless, of course, you’re on the outside looking in (but beautiful too), like the enthusiastic, exhibitionist housemaid played by Sissy Spacek, my favorite character in the picture. The movie’s other, more trapped wanderers include Geraldine Chaplin (who has a full frontal nude scene), Harvey Keitel (who, mercifully, does not), Lauren Hutton (as an obsessive photographer), Sally Kellerman, Denver Pyle (as Carradine’s father, a rich businessman — one of the few times, besides Bonnie and Clyde, that Pyle didn‘t play a Western coot), John Considine and Hollywood Swedish émigré (and Don Siegel’s ex-wife), Viveca Lindfors, in a strange, but fascinating turn as the quintessential L. A. youth-vampire.

Alan Rudolph, the film’s young writer-director, had been Robert Altman’s assistant director for a few years, and had written and directed some low-budgeters himself (including the infamous 1973 Barn of the Naked Dead), when Altman gave him his shot and produced this movie at his personal studio, the original Lion‘s Gate. Rudolph, who’d seen Altman‘s inimitable unbuttoned, improvisatory movies being created close up, seems to be copying some of the M*A*S*H-master’s style here, as well as adopting some of his mentor’s sarcastic dreamy world view. But he’s nowhere near as funny as Altman, he rarely (if ever) overlaps dialogue, and there’s a bit of Antonioni and Godard and even Bergman mixed into Welcome to L. A.’s gazpacho as well. Maybe Douglas Sirk too; in fact, the characters here, photographed with a real gleam by David Myers, sometimes seem like the children of characters in a Sirk movie.

The movie, I think, needs to be “ventilated.” It needs at least ten minutes more of L. A. location shots, shot outside the cars. Anyway, Welcome to L.A. was ignored by audiences and mostly abused by critics, but Altman went on producing or inspiring Rudolph (the son of the prolific TV director Oscar Rudolph). And it’s a good thing too, because eventually the younger Rudolph became one of the most interesting and intelligently offbeat of all American independent filmmakers (Choose Me, Trouble in Mind, The Moderns), with a dreamy world view and a brainy take on noir, romance and biography all his own. (This DVD is made to order and available from major venues like Amazon.)


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon