Rusty ‘Steel,’ Winding ‘Way,’ Trenchant ‘Margaret,’ Mundane ‘March’

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Contributing Writer

“Real Steel”

Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a robot boxing manager in “Real Steel.”

Richard Matheson faithfully adapted his short story “Steel,” about a manager who stands in for his damaged robot boxer in the ring to win a purse to repair it, for “The Twilight Zone” in 1963.  Anyone interested in the piece should seek out that half-hour episode, because the new adaptation by Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”) uses the premise of robot pugilism only as the foundation for a cascade of cliches.

In “Real Steel” (wide release) – which hardly deserves the adjective – the manager (Hugh Jackman) is a down-on-his-luck guy saddled with debts whose only fighter has just been smashed up by a sleazy promoter.

But luck smiles on him when an ex-girlfriend dies, leaving him the legal guardian of the eleven-year old son whom he long ago abandoned and the boy’s aunt wants to adopt.  Her husband pays the manager handsomely for custody, but he’s stuck with the kid for the summer.  So off they go on the boxing circuit.

What follows is a mixture of “Transformers”-inspired action sequences and father-son bonding scenes reminiscent of that old chestnut “The Champ.”  It’s alternately mawkish and violent, calculated to appeal both to those looking for a tearjerker and those wanting a brainless action movie.

Playing with the old “Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots” toy might be considerably more enjoyable a way to spend a couple of hours than watching this movie.
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“The Way”

Martin Sheen plays Tom, a father who walks the path his son died on in “The Way.”

Earnest and well-intentioned but muddled and slow, “The Way” (wide release) is set on the pilgrimage route from the Pyrenees to the shrine of St. James in Santiago, Spain. Martin Sheen plays a man who decides to walk the distance in memory of his estranged son – who died on the first leg of the journey – scattering the young man’s ashes along the way.  The trip, of course, proves a life-altering experience.

But the changes, though necessarily accompanied by symbols of faith, seem more vaguely spiritual and humanistic than religious, deriving primarily from the sense of camaraderie the initially standoffish man develops with three fellow travelers – a gregarious Dutchman, a bitter Canadian woman and a garrulous Irish writer.

Sheen is intense and committed in the lead, but his son Emilio Estevez’s script too often opts for the obvious, and his direction is lax.

There’s considerable compensation in the gorgeous locations, of course.  But as drama “The Way” is a pretty long slog.
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“Margaret”

Playwright Kenneth Lonergan’s second feature, “Margaret” (Angelika), might not be the equal of his first, “You Can Count on Me” (2000).  But that’s partially attributable to the fact that it’s been sitting on the shelf for six years because of a dispute between the writer-director and his financiers over its length, emerging now in a compromise two and a half hour cut.

The film is about the guilt felt by a precocious prep school student (Anna Paquin), who feels partially responsible for an accident in which a woman is killed by a bus that runs a red light.  Her attempt to get the case reopened and the driver fired becomes a hard lesson in the moral imperfection of the real world.  And it only adds to her bafflement about growing up.

“Margaret” is discursive and choppy, with subplots jostling against each other, not always comfortably.

But the film’s cumulative power is considerable, driven by Lonergan’s sharp, perceptive dialogue and the naturalistic performances he draws from the large cast.
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“The Ides of March”

Ryan Gosling and Max Minghella play Stephen, press secretary to a presidential hopeful. and Ben, a campaign aide in “The Ides of March.”

In “The Ides of March” (wide release), George Clooney tries to make a pointed statement about the American political system.  Unfortunately, the message of the picture is so simplistically cynical that it comes off seeming more like a tabloid gossip column than a serious commentary.

Clooney plays a governor who’s vying for the Democratic presidential nomination.  But the narrative isn’t about him as much as his young, ambitious press secretary (Ryan Gosling), who gets a lesson in duplicity, double-crossing and dirty secrets from his candidate, the dueling campaign managers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti) and a pretty intern (Evan Rachel Wood) who seduces him.

As a backstage political melodrama, the picture is interesting in a tawdry way, and it’s certainly well cast and skillfully made.

But it takes itself much too seriously, apparently under the delusion that its observations about corrupt double-dealing in the political arena will come as a revelation.  Actually the picture’s the equivalent of Captain Renault’s comment in “Casablanca” about how shocked he is to learn of gambling at Rick’s while simultaneously pocketing his winnings.

Had it been played as satire, this material might have had pizzazz.  As it is, “The Ides of March” merely offers the obvious with a straight face, though it’s a handsome one.

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