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This Week in Movies by Pete Hammond – “Real Steel”

By Pete Hammond
hollywoodnews.com:With an estimated $27.3 million for its opening weekend and an impressive ‘A’ audience satisfaction rating from Cinemascore Dreamworks’ robo ‘Rocky’ boxing film, Real Steel easily took number one at the boxoffice continuing the month-long streak of family film success in the top spot (after Lion King and Dolphin Tale). But the real reason ‘Real’ did so well lies in the heart of the movie which is ultimately about second chances, family and a father-son relationship even though those boxing robots, particularly lead robot Atom, are irresistible too. Early marketing suggested this film might be aspiring to be more of a ‘Transformers’ ripoff (the studio wanted to first reach out to its “base” of young male and male filmgoers) but any notions of that were quickly dispelled from early screening reaction to what is oddly, a very human story at its core and even female viewers responded especially strongly. It doesn’t hurt that Hugh Jackman, in a tricky role in which he is not always sympathetic, is at his most appealing as a down-on-his-luck one-time heavyweight contender, now a wannabe fight promoter hawking run-of-the-steel mill robots who have taken over the sport of prize fighting. The real plot kicks in when his estranged 11 year old son Max played by Toronto discovery Dakota Goyo comes into his life complicating matters.
Earlier this week I sat down for lunch with the film’s director Shawn Levy who has had great success with big studio comedies like Date Night, Cheaper By The Dozen and Night At The Museum, the latter two both producing successful sequels and making Levy a go-to name for this kind of family entertainment. But he says ‘Steel’ is a turning point for him as a filmmaker. His executive producer Steven Spielberg would seem to agree. Although Spielberg told him he’s made a lot of good movies in the past, this is his first film. And in fact it was what he saw as the human elements of the story that made him agree to do it in the first place. He points out past film inspirations set around kids like Justin Henry in Kramer Vs. Kramer, Henry Thomas in E.T. and Ricky Schroeder in The Champ as templates for what they were trying to achieve here but I told the film most reminded me of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1973 charmer, Paper Moon in which Ryan and Tatum O’Neal played a father/daughter con artist team in the depression of the 30’s. Levy agreed that was another film that could have served as a blueprint in some ways for this one. Of course Tatum went on to become the youngest (then ) competitive Oscar winner (for Supporting Actress, and in Goyo Levy has another major kid discovery. At the industry screening I attended, a guest, actress Frances Fisher, pointed out what makes him so good. “He’s got great movement. He’s a natural. A lot of actors never approach doing what he did in terms of movement in this movie.”
In order to get this level of performance from his young star Levy would keep the cameras running in the more intense scenes and give Goyo the space he needed to get that genuine emotion he brings to the film when needed. It also helped that in this age of CGI, the director insisted on using real robots whenever possible and instead of acting opposite a green screen Goyo was truly able to bond with a life-sized robot in the role of Atom. Levy told me the casting , which was conducted with a wide net across the country, finally came down to four boys but after Goyo finished his audition scene with Jackman all bets were off. Hugh , and Shawn knew Dakota was the one. The kid and Jackman do indeed have great screen chemistry together and it’s their story that should propel Real Steel to a nice long Fall run and great word of mouth.
For Levy this is his favorite film of those he has done to date and he’s hoping to have a career more along the lines of a Ron Howard who has gone effortlessly from genre to genre. In fact he’s currently working with James Cameron in developing a possible remake of Fantastic Voyage among other projects in the pipeline. Even though the “critics” haven’t always been kind to the animated and talented Levy ( Real Steel actually got a fairly decent 59% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes) he says he isn’t obsessed with reading reviews and his goal is to make movies “for people”. He’s obviously succeeding.

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About Pete Hammond

Pete Hammond is a writer, producer, movie critic and film expert whose commentary on the entertainment industry has appeared in numerous publications and on air interviews including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine, OK Magazine, NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw, Evening News With Brian Williams on MSNBC, the CBC, BBC, Bravo, E!, AMC, Canada AM and the KTLA Morning Show.

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