Friday, May 2, 2014

Worth Mentioning - Something Damn Near Heart

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody speaks of comedy, love, and boxing robots.


When we first meet Felix Ungar, he's not looking so good. Slightly unkempt, unshaven, clearly depressed, he checks into a room on a high floor of a hotel in New York City and proceeds to attempt to commit suicide by jumping out the window. He can't even accomplish that, throwing out his back while attempting to get the window open.

Deterred from his suicidal thoughts, Felix wanders over to the apartment of his pal Oscar Madison, where his circle of friends are playing their weekly poker game. His buddies do their best to hide that they know what's going on with him - his wife of twelve years, the mother of his children, has asked him for a divorce, and wasn't even concerned when she got his suicide note telegram - but the charade quickly descends into a chaotic show of concern.

By the end of the night, Felix has moved into Oscar's apartment with him, and so the center comedic conflict of the film has been established, as Felix and Oscar are both men who are impossible to live with in much different ways, ways that begin to grate on each other's nerves. While Oscar is a slob who has been living a filthy life of laziness, Felix is a fussy clean freak who likes to keep things in order. Soon these two old friends are bickering like an old married couple and making disastrous efforts to get back into the dating scene. The tensions between the pair build and build until boiling over in the third act...

The Odd Couple started life as a Broadway play starring Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney as Felix. The show was a huge success and Matthau and Carney performed it together nearly 1000 times. Producer Howard W. Koch wanted to move the show exactly as was from the stage to the screen as a Paramount production, but studio head Robert Evans - the exec behind such films as Rosemary's Baby, True Grit, Harold and Maude, The Conversation, The Godfather, and Chinatown - had a different idea: for the film version of The Odd Couple, he wanted to recast Art Carney with Walter Matthau's The Fortune Cookie co-star Jack Lemmon and reunite the actors with the writer/director of that 1966 film, the legendary Billy Wilder.

The deal with Wilder was never closed, but Lemm
on did indeed take over for Carney as Felix, and The Odd Couple became the second of what would end up being ten cinematic pairings of Lemmon and Matthau. They play an odd couple, but they were actually a perfect team.

Playwright/screenwriter Neil Simon, the writer who holds the record for most Tony and Academy Award nominations, handled the adaptation of his play himself, and the less-famous-than-Wilder Gene Saks, who had previously directed Paramount's successful 1967 Simon adaptation Barefoot in the Park, was brought on to helm this one as well.

The resulting film is a highly entertaining comedy that, with its minimal locations and epic dialogue sequences, plainly shows its stage roots, but that doesn't hinder the enjoyment factor in the slightest. Lemmon and Matthau are both wonderful in their roles. The running time consists primarily of the two exchanging words, and it's a delight to watch these two verbally volley with each other.

Over the titles and credits plays a memorable musical theme composed by Neal Hefti that is deeply embedded in the minds of generations not just from this movie but also from The Odd Couple TV sitcom that ran from 1970 to 1975 with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman (who also replaced Matthau in the stage play) as Felix and Oscar.


Six years after their hugely successful collaboration on Little Miss Sunshine, actor Paul Dano worked again with that film's directors, the husband and wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, to make this movie, which was written by and co-stars his longtime girlfriend Zoe Kazan.

Dano plays an author named Calvin Weir-Fields, who in trying to work through the writers block that has been plaguing him since the success of his first novel, starts writing about a girl who appears to him in a dream one night. He names her Ruby Sparks, and as the character comes alive on the page, she is so appealing to him that he even falls in love with this fictional character. It quickly becomes like he's writing about her to spend time with her...

And then one day, he awakes to find that Ruby Sparks is alive, in his apartment, and she's his girlfriend.

There have been a lot of stories about writers or artists whose characters come alive to interact with them, and usually these stories are in the horror genre. I've even written one like that myself. But in this case, the concept is used to tell a very interesting and complicated love story.

At first, at least after he gets past being freaked out and thinking he's gone crazy, Calvin is happy that the girl he loves has entered his reality, but as time goes on he becomes increasingly uneasy about carrying on a relationship with a person who didn't exist before he started writing about her. Being in love with his dream girl turns out to be harder than he expected. This despite the fact that any problem they have can be solved by Calvin typing more sentences at his typewriter; Ruby's attitude and feelings change at his whim, although these changes are sometimes a little too effective. And of course, the fact that he has so much control over his significant other makes for some incredibly creepy moments.

The daughter of screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord, granddaughter of writer/director Elia Kazan, Zoe Kazan makes a great screenwriting debut with this film, and she and Dano do well in their roles. The movie is a unique, odd, and in its fantasy-tinged way a truthful look at love.


Based on Richard Matheson's short story "Steel", which was first published in 1956 and was also adapted by Matheson into a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone, this sci-fi drama from director Shawn Levy and producer Steven Spielberg stars the X-Men franchise's Hugh Jackman as down-on-his-luck boxing promoter Charlie Kenton.

Charlie used to be a boxer himself, but the type of boxing he participated in gradually fell out of favor as a new variation gained popularity: robot boxing, the brutality and carnage of which excited crowds to a degree that the sight of humans punching each other just couldn't compete with any longer. Robot boxers have gone through several generations by the film's setting of the year 2020, and while the latest and greatest bots fight in the World Robot Boxing league, the earlier generation bots ended up in scrap heaps... Or fighting in underground matches, which is where Charlie does his business. In the world of boxing, the robots Charlie fixes up with the help of his longtime pal Bailey (Evangeline Lilly of Lost) and takes around to matches (which usually result in him losing money and getting in debt to dangerous people) may be obsolete, but there's nothing more obsolete than himself, a human boxer.

As the story begins, Charlie discovers that his ex-girlfriend has died, leaving the custody of his eleven-year-old son Max, who he hasn't seen or talked to in years, up in the air. While Charlie agrees to let his ex's sister take full custody of the boy, he also uses the kid to make a business deal with the sister's wealthy husband, getting paid to take care of Max for the summer while they leave the country on vacation. He doesn't care about Max, he just wants the money so he can buy a new robot.

In an Over the Top-esque turn of events, the estranged father and son gradually grow to bond and care against the backdrop of sporting events, driving from match to match in an old semi truck. In Over the Top, the truck driving father was an arm wrestler, here we have the robot boxing.

Charlie's robots fail repeatedly, but he finally starts seeing some success with a robot that Max digs up out of a junkyard. A generation two bot called Atom, who responds to voice commands and also has a "shadow mode", where it will mimic the movements of its trainer. With Max's drive, smarts, and determinations, and Charlie's experience, Atom ascends from the underground to the big leagues, ultimately getting a match against the ultra-hi-tech WRB champion Zeus.

Despite its Matheson and Twilight Zone pedigree, Real Steel was met with a lot of derision when it was first announced, with people mocking it as "Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em Robots: The Movie" and snarkily guessing that the climactic sequence would see Hugh Jackman getting into the ring for a human vs. robot fight. I was intrigued but hesitant when I went to see it... and found it to be a much better, more enjoyable film than I expected it to be.

The robot boxing sequences are quite fun to watch, the gradual growth of the father/son relationship is heartwarming, and the futuristic sci-fi quality is grounded so the setting is still relatable. That aspect of the film is what really won me over about it; the beautiful American farmland countrysides that Charlie and Max make their ways through between bouts, the roadside motels and county fairs, the fact that Charlie drives an early 1950s International Harvester semi truck. Plus, any movie that emulates Over the Top gets extra points from me.

This film really only shares basic concepts with Matheson's story, but it does a fine job expanding on and building a world out of those concepts.

Interestingly, the Twilight Zone episode did indeed have the boxing promoter climb into the ring against a robot opponent. As you would expect, he nearly gets beaten to death. With the addition of Atom's "shadow mode", Real Steel finds a way to get Charlie more involved with the climactic punchout while avoiding the absurdity that would be the sight of seeing a man go against the hulking metal beasts that are the robots of the WRB.

Real Steel is more than its logline may have made it out to be. Give it a chance and you may be pleasantly surprised, as I was.

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