'Real Steel' is Real Dumb

Channeling well as dozens of Popcorn King imitators, (the director) winds up delivering a braindead blockbuster that is guaranteed to generate income, if not entertainment.

Real Steel

Rated: PG-13
Director: Shawn Levy
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand
Studio: Touchstone
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-10-07 (General release)
UK date: 2011-10-14 (General release)

Apparently, in a few short years, the MMA will cease to exist, Floyd Mayweather can stop avoiding Manny Pacquiao and we will move even closer to the future shock predictions of one...Stuart Gordon? Yes, the man who made Re-Animator into a gore cult classic once tripped the light science fantastic with his men in giant battle automaton garb... Robot Jox. A cumbersome combination of Rollerball and Saturday Morning cartooning come to life, the main narrative had wars and other major political and corporate differences decided by these oversized mechanical gladiators. Now, the concept has been taken to its kid vid roots and been retitled Real Steel. Actually, this failed experiment in action figure marketing has little in common with the Gordon effort. It, at least, was entertaining.

In the year 2027, failed boxer and even worse promoter Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) has dragged his latest robot pugilist to a local state fair, the better to battle...a real life steer? Once he was a famous handler of these high tech warriors. Now, he is down and his luck and scrounging for whatever he can. Into his life walks forgotten son Max (Dakota Goyo), part of a custody battle between the State and the sister of his deceased ex-girlfriend. Demanding money to care for the kid over the Summer, Charlie sinks the cash into another automaton, only to see it lose and lose badly.

Hoping to scavenge something more sophisticated, he cruises a junk yard. There, Max comes across something buried beneath the garbage. It is a droid called Atom, a much older model that's been modified to "shadow" the actions of its trainer. Within days of cleaning it up and working with it, the trio becomes an underground success. When they battle in the big time, they are initially rebuffed. But as Max and Charlie start to learn Atom's secrets, they soon discover a scrappy little android that might be able to challenge the pros - even the monstrous mechanism known as Zeus.

Real Steel stinks. It panders and mollycoddles. It cottons to and fully favors a specific demographic. This is a movie made for the kind of mentality that still marvels at CG action, that finds unreal objects - in this case, oversized battling robots - as engaging and intriguing as all other pre-adolescent dreams. Yes, this is the first tween futurama, a movie where everything else about soon to be contemporary life is cast aside for more sequences of automatons kicking chassis. Any boy under the age of 12 will explode at the visuals and 'kid as champion' plotpoints. Adults will be mildly amused by the attempted scope and ersatz epic nature. As part of his growing oeuvre of crap, director Shawn Levy outdoes himself here. Channeling Spielberg (who Executive Produces) as well as dozens of Popcorn King imitators, he winds up delivering a braindead blockbuster that is guaranteed to generate income, if not entertainment.

Part of the problem here is Levy himself. The material requires someone with the skill to manipulate both the spectacle and the more minor moments. Though his films have made boatloads of cash, Levy has yet to prove he has the creative chops to handle this kind of stuff. His Night at the Museum movies have always been expensive direct to video tripe, cast into A-list legitimacy by the actors involved and the studio push. Even his lesser efforts - the Pink Panther remake, the recent Date Night - feel like half-baked bottom of the barrel pick-ups. He's like Charles Band without the eye for schlock. There is no heart here, no feeling for Charlie, Max, or their broken family. Instead, the non-robot routines grow more and more dull until we're begging for the big battle at the end.

Then there is the true lack of imagination. Even though it squandered a famous title and a stellar concept, I, Robot at least had something visual to say to its audience. It offered up images and ideas that spurred same, not carbon copies of the Transformers throttling each other. Everything about Real Steel is centered around the robots. They are given identities and skill sets which are guaranteed to make the transition to a console game with ease. All other elements are unimportant - Charlie's backstory; Max's life the last 10 years; the cutthroat couple who demand to adopt him; the various rogues and scallywags our heroes must overcome; even the Japanese genius behind Zeus is superficial and suggestive, making way for what has to be a planned series of sequels.

Indeed, Real Steel is also one of those few films that anticipate its own popularity and pulls back, knowing to give the viewer just enough to make another go-round all the more viable. Within this world, we know little about the various dynamics. In this world, we aren't sure what will happen with Charlie and Max. In this world, we are given only snippets of significant information. Trust that everyone behind the scenes are scanning preview cards and reading focus group reports in order to keep the mythology straight. Before long, we will see how Levy and his lame indulgences (the man truly thinks he's generating a new American Gothic with his various pans and far off vistas) will sign on for a huge pay raise, all to give Atom and Zeus their Rocky mandated rematch.

In fact, if Sylvester Stallone was smart, he'd get together with the estate of Richard Matheson (whose short story - and eventual Twilight Zone episode - "Steel" was supposedly the foundation for this film) and Harlan Ellison and sue the stuffing out of Dreamworks. Real Steel is nothing more than a certain '70s Philly pugilist retrofitted with enough squared circle speculative bells and whistles to keep the sci-fi geeks enflamed. It's a novelty where nothing is new except the manipulation via metal. We are supposed to root for Atom, to play the underdog card just long enough for the Tinseltown formulas to kick in. For the most part, this movie will generate a kind of buzz among the grade school set. Everyone else will see the subterfuge behind the splash.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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