Real Steel

by CosmicTwin3

 

2011, Hugh Jackman, Evageline Lilly, Dakota Goyo. Directed by Shawn Levy.

When you see this movie I dare you not to think about the iconic plastic robot boxers that baby-boomers go into fits of nostalgia about. You know the ones – Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. “You knocked his block off!” The plastic “athletes” were operated by plastic controllers consisting of joysticks equipped with thumb-operated plastic plunger buttons at the base of the plastic platform. Each of their boxing matches lasted an average of about 5 seconds. Every time I ever played with one of these things as a child it seemed that one of the plastic boxers was at a serious disadvantage due to a faulty spring in his neck which caused his head to pop up a nanosecond after the other robot came within a whisker of hitting him. In a primitive way it was a foreshadowing of the dawn of video games where the player controlled all the action on a TV screen with a joystick and/or buttons and winning was more about thumb speed and dexterity than anything else.

Fast forward a few decades into the not-so-distant future and imagine that the concept of surrogate boxers has evolved into a system where sophisticated robotic opponents controlled by master video game players pound each other to pieces – literally. No human fighters are at risk of injury but the desire to see anthropomorphic machines bob, weave, throw punches, and take a beating is every bit as entertaining and possibly even more lucrative than when humans squared off against each other in the boxing ring. The World Robot Boxing league features championship fights in dazzling state-of-the-art arenas and there is also a thriving underground of down-and-out has-beens who fight local favorites for rent money while bookies make a killing.

Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a down-and-out has-been former boxer who takes his well-worn yet serviceable boxing robot to local small-town venues making barely enough money to survive one day at a time. Always wagering against impossible odds, he has gotten himself into so much debt that numerous threats have been made against his life. After a spectacular defeat that leaves him with no robot and no options, he learns that he is to be the sole caretaker of the son he hasn’t seen or been in contact with in 10 years. Charlie, prepared to quickly sign over custody of the boy to a loving aunt, sees an opportunity to make some fast cash and then abandon him yet again. But Max, his son, has a different idea.

While the two search through a scrap heap for enough spare parts to bolt together a fighter, Max stumbles upon a discarded, outdated robot that he drags home. Charlie insists that the bot is too small and underpowered to fight effectively, but Max, every bit as stubborn as his father, is determined to prove otherwise. The pair embark on a journey that starts with the robot exhibiting some surprising talent that, with a little luck and a lot of heart, just may take them to the pinnacle of success. Along the way the two get to know each other, the pretty lady in Charlie’s life gets to impart her special words of wisdom, and the bad guys get what’s coming to them.

This film can be described as Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots meets Transformers meets Rocky Balboa, but that would be selling it short. Thanks mainly to Hugh Jackman as the cynical underdog who never quite reached his full potential as a boxer, the story unfolds in a refreshing, stylish, exciting, and engaging way. The special effects are spectacular, as we have come to expect, and the human element is not missing here as it was from Transfomers; in this one the robots mirror the personalities of their owner/operators, so we come to see them as a team. Real Steel is tried-and-true action-packed family entertainment that is highly imaginative, exceptionally well-acted, and well worth seeing on the big screen.

Two boxes of popcornCosmic Twins rating: Double Serving with a full box of Milk Duds

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The Mighty Macs

by CosmicTwin3

 

2011, Written and directed by Tim Chambers, stars Ellen Burstyn, Carla Gugino, David Boreanaz, Marley Shelton

Let’s hear it for girl power! This sweet G-rated sports-themed movie may be derivative but it offers real inspiration for young females who have no idea how difficult life used to be for women in general and women athletes in particular.

It is 1971, a transitional time for young women who are discovering that the traditional roles of stay-at-home wife and mother are not their only options. One of these young women is attractive, well-educated, fashionable, married Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino). An accomplished athlete, Cathy aspires to be a college basketball coach, a career field that offers few choices for a novice.

Cathy finally finds a small college in need of a basketball coach, or at least an “activities director” who is willing to work cheap. The college happens to be Immaculata, a small, quiet Catholic all-girls institution of higher learning that doubles as the Immaculate Heart of Mary nuns’ retirement home. The stern Mother Superior (Ellen Burstyn), more concerned about dampening the students’ hormones than developing athletic talent, is fighting an uphill battle to keep the school and the retirement home open. Without a proper gym, proper uniforms, or even a proper basketball, Cathy is determined to prove to everyone – especially herself – that she can mold a disparate group of girls into a real team. The only encouragement comes from Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton), soon recruited to be the assistant coach.

Cathy’s efforts to employ modern coaching methods are met with intense disapproval from Mother Superior and the long hours she is willing to put in create tension with her NBA referee husband (David Boreanaz). The girls seem to be more interested in getting married and becoming traditional homemakers than polishing their basketball skills in their hideously outdated uniforms. Playing larger schools with established, well-funded athletic programs and plenty of family and school support, the Mighty Macs make a dismal showing in their first few games but Cathy doggedly persists and gradually things start to improve. Sister Sunday rallies the other sisters to provide much needed support and a cheering section for the team. Their “We Will Be #1!” buttons seem ridiculously optimistic, particularly considering that the school is on the verge of being closed permanently. With all of these obstacles to overcome, Cathy is more determined than ever to make the impossible happen. What they need is a miracle.

The miracle comes in the form of a spectacular winning season and an invitation to the first ever national women’s basketball championship tournament. But with no money to send the team to the competition, can the little college claim the Cinderella title that they have worked so hard to achieve?

The Mighty Macs tells its classic underdog sports tale with a lot of tried-and-true clichés tossed in for good measure. The presence of so many nuns, while integral to the story, provides plenty of flashbacks to Sister Act. There aren’t many surprises as the film unfolds and some of the characters come across at times as entirely too one-dimensional. There are lines of dialog that are extremely corny. Still, despite all the familiarity (which can be forgiven considering the G rating), this movie has a lot going for it. With its heartwarming story and charming performances, the film is emotionally engaging and enthusiastically empowering. Knowing that the story is based on true events helps to elevate it from a forgettable yawner to an inspiring example of what women can achieve when they believe in themselves. This is a wonderful family movie for both tween girls and anyone interested in modern sports history. Cathy Rush not only coached the Mighty Macs to a winning season in 1972, she coached them to three consecutive national women’s basketball championships; she was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame; several of her players went on to become nationally recognized college basketball coaches as well. And the quiet little all-girls school became a co-ed university that continues to thrive.

While this one may not find its footing in theaters, it should become a permanent fixture in home DVD/Blu-ray libraries where there are young children.

Cosmic Twins rating: Cotton candy for everyone!

Moneyball

by CosmicTwin3

2011 Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman

“It’s hard not to get romantic about baseball,” says Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) in this latest sports movie. Really? What’s so romantic about baseball? From my perspective, having enjoyed my fair share of T-ball and Little League seasons, it’s a fairly slow-paced, usually long game that inspires grown men to spout obscure statistics and get practically misty-eyed talking about legendary players. Isn’t it a kids’ game that grown-ups have turned into a multi-billion dollar business? Well… sort of, but maybe it’s also more than that.

Inspired by the book about the real Billy Beane and actual events in 2002-2003, Moneyball tells the story of how one team’s General Manager (the GM for those who are more familiar with professional sports than I am) changed the game of baseball forever by ignoring conventional wisdom about how to choose players to assemble a winning Major League Baseball team. The problem, apparently, has to do with the ability to afford players with the right combinations of certain outstanding skills.  A team such as the Oakland A’s, with a meager budget for player salaries, has practically no hope of competing with a lavishly funded team such as the New York Yankees. Rich teams dominate every season and go to the World Series year after year. Hence the entire title of the book by Michael Lewis: Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.

In order to level the playing field, so to speak, someone, somehow must start to figure out how to put together a winning team on a tiny budget. Billy Beane stumbles upon fresh-faced, recent Yale graduate Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) with a degree in economics and a deep abiding love of baseball who seems to have the magic formula for just such a predicament. With Peter’s help and computer whiz-kid number crunching abilities, Billy starts acquiring players in a way that antagonizes more than one or two long-time A’s talent scouts, not to mention the team’s coach (Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a supporting role).

Will this new method of team-building prove to be the right course, or will Billy be ridiculed out of a job? An added dimension to an already intriguing story is that Billy Beane gave up a full scholarship to Stanford University to play baseball in the Major Leagues. Recruited for his good looks and amazing abilities to hit, throw, run, and whatever else is required to be a baseball superstar, no one can adequately explain why Billy’s career as a professional player never really took off. Still craving the “wins,” Billy as a GM is still devoted to the game and probably has a unique insight into why Peter’s team-building choices could really work.

I’ve seen many sports-themed movies over the years, many about baseball: Mr. Baseball, The Natural, Angels in the Outfield, Eight Men Out, Bull Durham, Major League, The Rookie, and A League of Their Own, to name a few. I remember enjoying Field of Dreams, but not quite understanding the mysticism of it. Some of the better “sports-as-metaphor” non-baseball movies that I’ve enjoyed include The Mighty Ducks, Miracle, Remember the Titans, Bend it Like Beckham, Invictus, The Blind Side, etc. Moneyball is as good as any of these.

I’m not especially keen on any movie just because it involves sports, but I do like really good movies. Moneyball is a really good movie. It forgoes the mysticism of why baseball matters so much to so many fans and gives insight into what it’s really like to be a professional player and how the business side of the game takes a toll on the mind as well as the body. Surprisingly, perhaps, this film deftly gets to the heart of the matter by putting emotions front and center in a story about a subject that is dominated by statistics. At the very least, I’m starting to understand why some people find it “hard not to get romantic about baseball.” Hill was superb as the baseball-loving genius computer geek and (forgive me for using another sports metaphor here, but it actually is appropriate) Pitt hit it out of the park in his performance as athlete turned GM searching for a way to achieve the ultimate goal: winning the last game of the season.

Cosmic Twins Popcorn Rating: Full Bucket