2012 Oscar Checklist – Part 4: One-offs

I know I said animated was next but we’re going with this instead. This checklist features two films that don’t really fit with anything else that I haven’t already reviewed. The only thing they have in common is that they were nominated in just one category.

Real Steel – Nominated for Best Visual Effects

If Warrior was Rocky times two (and with kicking), then Real Steel is Rocky with robots. Instead of focusing squarely on the underdog story, the part that is interesting and rousing, Real Steel spends a great deal of time dealing with fathers and sons (this is a Spielberg production after all). Like most modern special effects driven films, I can’t deny that I was entertained, but I can also be distracted by bubble wrap for 2 hours too… so, yeah.

Some time in the future, robot boxing has replaced human boxing because it’s robots fighting and therefore awesome. Hugh Jackman is former boxer Charlie Kenton, now he’s a robot manager. He sports a perpetual hangover, is always down on his luck and in debt; he’s also a selfish blowhard, but because it’s Hugh Jackman, we’re on his side. Through a series of events that are in no way convoluted, Jackman finds himself saddled with a preteen son he gave up caring about long ago. Well, surprise, surprise, his son Max (Dakota Goyo) is obsessed with robot boxing. After magically finding a used bot, Atom, in the junk heap, they hit the underground circuit.

Will father and son grow to love each other? Can David (or in this case Atom) defeat Goliath, some souped-up mega robot with the ice-cold bitch owner and comically clichéd Japanese inventor? This is a family film, and a rather predictable one at that, so I think you know already. But these clichés work, always have. You can make a great movie using them, so long as you bring something special to the table. Robots fighting is not something special. It can be cool, but that’s about it.

Even the inherent coolness of the movie’s premise is desaturated by so many poor choices. The film tries so hard to be hip that it becomes cheesier than the already artificial story. The costuming and set design of the underground circuit is laughable. Like they wanted it to be gritty or Thunderdome-ish, but they opted for the runway version instead. Whether it’s hip-hop, hard rock, or techno music, the soundtrack has only one level and that’s abrasive. Evangeline Lilly’s character is totally worthless. Every time they cut to her during the final fight I wondered what the hell was she doing there.

They also kept hinting at whether or not the robot is sentient or not (or maybe Jesus) but it was confusing because I was still trying to figure out the rules of this universe. Like, is the best bot all about the programming or the operator? But instead I’m thinking, maybe he’s ALIVE!!! I didn’t like that.

And finally the kid. In the beginning he is fine, but that’s because they don’t have him talk that much. By the end he’s making speeches, dancing poorly, and taunting like that annoying kid who lives next door (you know the one). Why must every kid star be so… winning? Where are all the weirdos? Anyways, the visual effects are fine and there is a nice balance between animatronics and CGI, but I would have made room on my ballot for something else. There’s a good movie here, but it’s buried under layers of bad decisions made in the name of appeasement.

Grade: C

Margin Call – Nominated for Best Original Screenplay

Margin Call is a fictionalized look at the financial meltdown of 2008. As is the case with anything Wall Street, I am not an expert and have a difficult time explaining the whole mess. But like Inside Job, the Oscar-winning documentary from last year, this film manages to remain comprehensible without dumbing things down (too much anyways).

Approaching the material from inside, we follow Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto, who also produced), an analyst at a major investment bank. After a day of mass layoffs, Peter is left without his boss and mentor, Eric Dale (played by the always amazing Stanley Tucci). Before being escorted out, Eric encourages Peter to complete a project he was working on. Then later that night, Peter discovers that his employer, and the financial sector, is headed toward certain doom. The film then follows the fall-out from Peter’s discovery over the course of the entire night.

It’s a bit like the all-in-one-night classics American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused, except with grown men contemplating life and money on the final day of their careers. The structure of the film naturally brings about an anxiety that lessens the inherent preachiness of such a project. Peter reports his findings to his immediate superior (Paul Bettany), who then reports it to his higher up (Kevin Spacey). It keeps going higher and higher until we’ve passed by Simon Baker and Demi Moore and reach the CEO, played by Jeremy Irons who comes perilously close to walking away with the whole movie. Irons chews up the room with his cunning and shameless self-preservation so well that you almost agree with his decisions.

At each level of power, Peter is brought along because he’s kind of a genius, and he explains what is happening to his less-than-genius colleagues. This of course allows the audience to keep up, and at the same time have a character to root for, as he seems to be the only character that isn’t culpable. Sprinkled throughout are some nice quiet moments where the characters discuss their regrets (or lack there of), their greed, right and wrong, and who is to blame. The entire ensemble does a fantastic job, with Irons being the standout. Spacey is also worth mentioning for finally giving a complete and substantial performance after all these years.

Again, I don’t think the original screenplay would make my own list, but this is strong work. The film is a little too smooth and doesn’t really do anything substantial with the visuals. But the writing and the direction from first timer J.C. Chandor are so assured that it’s hard to fault him for focusing more on getting his words to the screen. The final fifteen minutes lose a bit of the steam and intensity of the rest of the film, but this is more intentional. It’s meant to be tonally resigned, and the reality behind the story doesn’t really lend itself to fireworks. Still, it’s a very impressive debut even if it’s not nearly as sobering as Inside Job.

Grade: B+

I have no freaking idea what I’ll be reviewing next but there is plenty more, so keep coming back.


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