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FILM REVIEW: Real Steel, The Interrupters, 1911

Categories: Movies

 Hugh Jackman, left, and Dakota Goyo are shown in a scene from Real Steel (Disney/Dreamworks II/Associated Press)

Shawn Levy is a Montreal-born director who makes Grade-A Hollywood hokum. In the Night at the Museum movies, Date Night and now Real Steel, Levy has perfected the formula of big silly spectacles that are smarter than you expect.

So let's get the story out of the way. Set in the not-so-distant future, Real Steel is a father-and-son story hiding behind a robotized Rocky tale, in a world where metallic combatants have replaced flesh-and-blood violence. Try to imagine Warrior for pre-teens and you get the idea.

No, it's not based on the game Rock'em Sock 'em. Actually the inspiration was a short story by sci-fi scribe Richard Matheson.

The plot is pretty simple. Hugh Jackman is Charlie, an ex-boxer looking for a remote-controlled champion to get back into the big leagues of robot boxing. The unexpected arrival of his 11-year-old son throws off his game, but also leads to the discovery of Atom, a sparing bot that can take a punch and then some.

No one will be surprised then the Dad and his boy bond in the midst of heavy metal clashes. But there's a Capra-esque glee to the tale. Levy keeps the action humming and interaction between the actors are all better than average. Jackman gives us Wolverine-light with Charlie the grumpy ex-fighter. Young Dakota Goyo holds his own as the tiny robotics wizard and even gets to bust out some Bieberish dance moves. Supporting talents Evangeline Lilly and Thunder Bay's Kevin Durand round out a cast with the right amount of grit.

While parents may shake their heads over a story that celebrates metal-on-metal mayhem, let me promise you Real Steel is cinematic crack for 12-year-old boys. Colourful robots named Midas and Noisy Boy? The idea of controlling your own three-metre wrecking machine? Consider it a K-O for the Hot Wheels crowd and for the rest of us, a slightly more coherent version of Transformers.

RATING: Three stars out of five.

 Cobe Williams, violence interrupter, in The Interrupters. (Kartemquin Films)

In world where Morgan Spurlock and his acolytes reign supreme at the multiplex, The Interrupters is a reminder of the slow-release pleasures of the documentary as a passive observer. From Steve James, the director of Hoop Dreams, comes another film focusing on characters living on the margins of society, except this time the heroes are those willing to take an active role.

The Interrupters introduces us to Chicago, a city drowning in a culture of death and violence. Newsreels narrate a familiar story of high crime and rising murder rates. Life is depressingly disposable for those living in the wrong part of town.

Enter the violence interrupters - members of Cease Fire Chicago who try to quell violence at the source. The immediate goal isn't to rescue a gangster from the life, but to prevent another needless death. Simply put: Save a life.

James spends an entire year in the Windy City, breaking the film up into the seasons, fall, winter, spring and summer. The casual culture of violence is immediately eye opening. Kids sit on the stoop and talk about going to get a thumper to settle a beef. But the interrupters come from the street life themselves and fearlessly interject themselves to, as the organizers say, "interrupt the transmission of violence."

This is a film that succeeds on the strength of the characters James zooms in on. There's Eddie, a Latino gangbanger who spent half his life in jail, who uses art to try make amends for his past crimes. The easy-going Cobe, who escaped with his family into the suburbs but spends his days befriending, cajoling and fighting with teens more concerned about saving face than saving lives. Finally there's Ameena, daughter of one of Chicago's biggest gang leaders. She's found Allah and put her pimping, drug-slinging lifestyle behind her. But she can still channel that streetwise fury, staring down a posse of bad boys with her bulletproof glare.

Each of the interrupters take young troublemakers under their wing. As seasons fly by and snow gathers on the curbside vigils, it can be tough to watch their young charges fail. But James takes his time with the film, showing us that changing lives takes months, if not years. There is hope in the end and some stunning scenes including a barbershop confessional by a repentant stick-up man.

The Interrupters is a reminder of both the power of compassion and strength of patient filmmaking.

RATING: Four and a half stars out of five

 A scene from 1911 (TIFF)

For his 100th film, as the press materials proudly trumpet, Jackie Chan returns to wave the red flag for the People's Republic of China. Or in this case, a pre-cursor of the People's Republic, the revolutionaries who fought against the Qing Dynasty in the rebellion of 1911.

Fascinating for only the most-devoted history fanatics, 1911 is a sumptuous pageant of propaganda. The film, which Chan co-directed, introduces a large cast of righteous rebels who oppose the evil Empress. Chan plays Huang Xing, the courageous military mind behind the revolution. Freed of his usual bumbling persona, Chan portrays a stoic supporter of the cause but frankly showed more of a range in The Karate Kid than with this cardboard cutout.

Although the posters suggest otherwise, the true star of 1911 is Winston Chao, who plays Sun Yat-Sen, the revolutionary leader who we first meet living in exile in San Francisco. Eventually Sun returns home, where he struggles with taking the reins of power. (Aided at times by Homer Lea, a true-life American author, unfortunately ruined by an outrageous American caricature.)

Winston makes the most of the overly earnest dialogue but 1911 isn't a film interested in getting under the skin of these party idols. Sun Yat-Sen dreamed of pulling China out from under the heel of the Qing Dynasty, catapulting his countrymen forward into a modern society filled with factories. One can't help but wonder what the New Army revolutionaries would have thought of today's iPhone wage slaves. But you'll find no such sense of exploration in 1911, which is nothing less than a stirring, but soulless, cinematic celebration.

Rating: One out of five.

--Eli Glasner

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