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“Total Recall” review: Some memories you just can’t erase

Colin Farrell in Total Recall

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When a studio decides to remake a movie, it generally tends to be an all-or-nothing gambit. In the best-case scenario, the new film improves on its predecessor’s flaws, offers some surprises, and samples from the story and tonal elements that made the original film so memorable. What usually happens, however, is that the film collapses under the weight of the movie that inspired it, with every similarity and difference judged against those of its predecessor and — more often than not — found lacking.

And that’s why the remake of “Total Recall” hitting theaters this week has two factors working against it: not only was the first film very, very good, but the general public’s threshold for remakes simply doesn’t allow for mediocre imitations, no matter how entertaining they manage to be.

It’s probably worth noting early on that yes, I’m aware that “Total Recall” isn’t technically a remake. It’s actually another big-screen adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. However, anyone familiar with the original story will find that the new film veers even further away from the source material than Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film, which was itself a loose adaptation.

For those not familiar with the 1990 film or the 1966 story that inspired it, the narrative thread shared by all three projects follows an ordinary guy who longs for something more than his hum-drum life, and decides to visit a company that implants made-to-order memories in your brain. Things go awry, however, when the company’s technicians discover that someone’s already been fiddling with his brain. But is he really a secret agent, or is it all just a part of the adventure he paid for?

And that’s about the extent of what the three projects have in common, with the new “Total Recall” existing as sort of a remix of a remix, with the latest version bearing little resemblance to the original material beyond an occasional sample or recycled verse.

Still, that’s not to say that “Total Recall” is a bad movie. Unshackled from the burden of its title and the expectations that come with it, the movie manages to be an entertaining, action-packed adventure peppered with interesting science-fiction elements. Director Len Wiseman has a knack for creating great fight sequences filled with epic gun battles and moments that slow down, speed up, and zoom in at just the right points to make a scene more impressive than it has any right to be, and Kate Beckinsale is endlessly fun to watch as Lori, the government agent masquerading as the wife of reluctant hero Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell). Her role combines the characters played by Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside in the original film, and the result is a one-woman killing machine who steals every scene she’s in.

Unfortunately, the elements that set the new film apart from its predecessor in positive ways are far too rare, and it feels like the creative team behind the remake never quite recognized what made Verhoeven’s film so great. Time after time, when the new movie has opportunities to push the limits and set itself apart from the previous film, it stops shy of the benchmarks set two decades ago. Basically, it has all the polish and shine of a 2012 movie, but lacks any of the heart and personality that would make it feel like a successor to the original “Total Recall.”

These shortcomings are especially apparent in the changes made to give the project a more mainstream-friendly appeal. Where Verhoeven pushed the limits of the “R” rating with brutal gunfights that left bodies — including scores of innocent bystanders — strewn about in bloody heaps, the new film puts Quaid up against a task force largely composed of lifeless, infinitely replaceable robots. This removes much of the shock and the feeling of high stakes at play in the 1990 film, and instead of wincing at every death along Quaid’s adventure, you’re left shrugging (if any reaction at all) each time a robot is decapitated, blown apart, or otherwise dismembered.

Even the nods to the original film seem forced and included as placeholders to justify the title instead of necessary plot elements that advance the story in any way. The overweight woman who was revealed to be Arnold Schwarzenegger’s disguise in the first film makes a cameo in this one, and so does a triple-breasted prostitute who’s wealth of assets is never quite explained. The film even recreates a few memorable fight scenes from the 1990 film — albeit with Quaid fighting robots instead of people this time around. Quaid also makes passing mention of Mars at one point, which is as close as the new film gets to the Red Planet, opting to ditch the interplanetary adventure of the original film for a mission that shuttles him between two colonies here on Earth.

And though the decision to make the fundamental conflict in “Total Recall” a class war between two Earth colonies instead of Earth and Mars seems questionable (and eliminates the chance to put a 2012 spin on some of the 1990 film’s most iconic scenes), it does provide one of the more entertaining plot devices in the movie.

In the world of the new “Total Recall,” the remaining human civilization is split up between the exploited working class of “The Colony” (Australia) and the wealthy elite of the United Federation of Britain. People travel from one area to the other via “The Fall,” a shuttle capable of going through the Earth from one side to the other. (It’s basically the science-fiction evolution of “digging a hole to China.”) The commute between UFB and The Colony is not only a key element in the film’s plot, but it also serves as a great example of how much potential the film had with some of its more inventive sci-fi elements.

Along with some great scenes that unfold during (and after) commutes via The Fall, “Total Recall” also features some cool pieces of future-world tech which seem to indicate that at least some of the elements that made the original film so great were noticed. Guns that fire glowing, electric restraint harnesses and phones surgically implanted in people’s hands are just two of the many notable pieces of sci-fi tech that earn the film some legitimate sci-fi cred.

For all of its achievements in tech, however, the film falls conspicuously short in the way it utilizes its cast. It seems strange to write this, but Farrell’s take on Quaid shows little of the personality that Arnold Schwarzenegger brought to the role, and Jessica Biel does little to make the role of resistance fighter Melina anything more than a pretty face. Even Bryan Cranston seems criminally underused — or more accurately, misused — as the villainous despot Cohaagen, who spars with Quaid physically, but is rarely given the chance to be the psychological threat we know he’s capable of playing.

Perhaps the most egregious flaw in “Total Recall,” though, is the way it assumes the worst of its audience’s ability to handle uncertainty. Both the original short story and the 1990 film did a masterful job of keeping you uncertain whether the main character’s adventure was really happening, or a figment of his imagination. For every piece of evidence that pointed toward it being a reality, there was a strong argument to be made that it was all in the hero’s mind. The remake removes that uncertainty entirely, and leaves little doubt as to what’s real and what’s imagined in Quaid’s adventure, and relegates that feeling of uncertainty to just another homage to the source material instead of an actual element of the story.

In the end, there’s a case to be made that “Total Recall” would probably be more successful with a different title, as it’s a fun, entertaining sci-fi adventure with flaws that come from the comparison to its source material more often than the movie itself. And no matter how enjoyable of a film it is, those comparisons will be made — and should be made — because that’s the nature of remakes and the gamble studios make when they go down that route.

Does “Total Recall” succeed as a movie? Sure. But unfortunately, the movie never quite succeeds as “Total Recall.”

“Total Recall” hits theaters Friday, August 3, and stars Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Bryan Cranston, Jessica Biel, and Bokeem Woodbine.

Underworld

Under Your Spell

10 Otherworldly Romances That’ll Melt Your Heart

Spend Valentine's Day weekend with IFC's Underworld movie marathon.

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Photo Credit: Screen Gems/courtesy Everett Collection

Romance takes many forms, and that is especially true when you have a thirst for blood or laser beams coming out of your eyes.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a werewolf, a superhero, a clone, a time-traveler, or a vampire, love is the one thing that infects us all.  Read on to find out why Romeo and Juliet have nothing on these supernatural star-crossed lovers, and be sure to catch IFC’s Underworld movie marathon this Valentine’s Day weekend.

1. Cyclops/Jean Grey/Wolverine, X-Men series

The X-Men franchise is rife with romance, but the steamiest “ménage à mutant” may just be the one between Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Their triangle is a complicated one as Jean finds herself torn between the two very different men while also trying to control her darker side, the Phoenix. This leads to Jean killing Cyclops and eventually getting stabbed through her heart by Wolverine in X-Men: The Last Stand. Yikes!  Maybe they should change the name to Ex-Men instead?


2. Willow/Tara, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Joss Whedon gave audiences some great romances on Buffy the Vampire Slayer — including the central triangle of Buffy, Angel, and Spike — but it was the love between witches Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson) that broke new ground for its sensitive and nuanced portrayal of a LGBT relationship.

Willow is smart and confident and isn’t even sure of her sexuality when she first meets Tara at college in a Wiccan campus group. As the two begin experimenting with spells, they realize they’re also falling for one another and become the show’s most enduring, happy couple. At least until Tara’s death in season six, a moment that still brings on the feels.


3. Selene/Michael, Underworld series

The Twilight gang pales in comparison (both literally and metaphorically) to the Lycans and Vampires of the stylish Underworld franchise. If you’re looking for an epic vampire/werewolf romance set amidst an epic vampire/werewolf war, Underworld handily delivers in the form of leather catsuited Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and shaggy blonde hunk Michael (a post-Felicity Scott Speedman). As they work together to stop the Vampire/Lycan war, they give into their passions while also kicking butt in skintight leather. Love at first bite indeed.


4. Spider-man/Mary Jane Watson, Spider-man

After rushing to the aid of beautiful girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the Amazing Spider-man is rewarded with an upside-down kiss that is still one of the most romantic moments in comic book movie history. For Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), the shy, lovable dork beneath the mask, his rain-soaked makeout session is the culmination of years of unrequited love and one very powerful spider bite. As the films progress, Peter tries pushing MJ away in an attempt to protect her from his enemies, but their web of love is just too powerful. And you know, with great power, comes great responsibility.


5. Molly/Sam, Ghost

When it comes to supernatural romance, you really can’t beat Molly and Sam from the 1990 hit film Ghost. Demi Moore goes crazy for Swayze like the rest of us, and the pair make pottery sexier than it’s ever been.

When Sam is murdered, he’s forced to communicate through con artist turned real psychic, Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg in her Academy Award-winning role) to warn Molly she is still in danger from his co-worker, Carl (a pre-Scandal Tony Goldwyn). Molly doesn’t believe Oda is telling the truth, so Sam proves it by sliding a penny up the wall and then possessing Oda so he and Molly can share one last romantic dance together (but not the dirty kind). We’d pay a penny for a dance with Patrick Swayze ANY day.


6. Cosima/Delphine, Orphan Black

It stands to reason there would be at least one complicated romance on a show about clones, and none more complicated than the one between clone Cosima (Tatiana Maslany) and Dr. Delphine Cormier (Evelyne Brochu) on BBC America’s hit drama Orphan Black.

Cosima is a PhD student focusing on evolutionary developmental biology at the University of Minnesota when she meets Delphine, a research associate from the nefarious Dyad Institute, posing as a fellow immunology student. The two fall in love, but their happiness is brief once Dyad and the other members of Clone Club get involved. Here’s hoping Cosima finds love in season four of Orphan Black. Girlfriend could use a break.


7. Aragorn/Arwen, Lord of the Rings

On a picturesque bridge in Rivendell amidst some stellar mood-lighting and dreamy Elvish language with English subtitles for us non-Middle Earthlings, Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) bind their souls to one another, pledging to love each other no matter what befalls them.

Their courtship is a matter of contention with Arwen’s father, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), who doesn’t wish to see his daughter suffer over Aragorn’s future death. The two marry after the conclusion of the War of the Ring, with Aragorn assuming his throne as King of Gondor, and Arwen forgoing her immortality to become his Queen. Is it too much to assume they asked Frodo to be their wedding ring-bearer?


8. Lafayette/Jesus, True Blood

True Blood quickly became the go-to show for supernatural sex scenes featuring future Magic Mike strippers (Joe Manganiello) and pale Nordic men with washboard abs (Hi Alexander Skarsgård!), but honestly, there was a little something for everyone, including fan favorite Bon Temps medium, Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis).

In season three, Lafayette met his mother’s nurse, Jesus, and the two began a relationship. As they spend more time together and start doing V (short for Vampire Blood), they learn Jesus is descended from a long line of witches and that Lafayette himself has magical abilities. However, supernatural love is anything but simple, and after the pair join a coven, Lafayette becomes possessed by the dead spirit of its former leader. This relationship certainly puts a whole new spin on possessive love.


9. Nymphadora Tonks/Remus Lupin, Harry Potter series

There are lots of sad characters in the Harry Potter series, but Remus Lupin ranks among the saddest. He was bitten by a werewolf as a child, his best friend was murdered and his other best friend was wrongly imprisoned in Azkaban for it, then THAT best friend was killed by a Death Eater at the Ministry of Magic as Remus looked on. So when Lupin unexpectedly found himself in love with badass Auror and Metamorphmagus Nymphadora Tonks (she prefers to be called by her surname ONLY, thank you very much), pretty much everyone, including Lupin himself, was both elated and cautiously hopeful about their romance and eventual marriage.

Sadly, the pair met a tragic ending when both were killed by Death Eaters during the Battle of Hogwarts, leaving their son, Teddy, orphaned much like his godfather Harry Potter. Accio hankies!


10. The Doctor/Rose Tyler, Doctor Who

Speaking of wolves, Rose “Bad Wolf” Tyler (Billie Piper) captured the Doctor’s hearts from the moment he told her to “Run!” in the very first episode of the re-booted Doctor Who series. Their affection for one another grew steadily deeper during their travels in the TARDIS, whether they were stuck in 1950s London, facing down pure evil in the Satan Pit, or battling Cybermen.

But their relationship took a tragic turn during the season two finale episode, “Doomsday,” when the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and Rose found themselves separated in parallel universes with no way of being reunited (lest two universes collapse as a result of a paradox). A sobbing Rose told a holographic transmission of the Doctor she loved him, but before he could reply, the transmission cut out, leaving our beloved Time Lord (and most of the audience) with a tear-stained face and two broken hearts all alone in the TARDIS.

Tim Grierson on the Return of Colin Farrell

Colin Farrell

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When you think of Colin Farrell, what comes to mind? Do you picture the Hollywood heartthrob who’s constant tabloid fodder? Or do you remember the fine actor who’s done everything from “The New World” to “In Bruges”? The betting is that, for most people, it’s the former. Lately, Farrell is trying his best to make it the latter.

On Friday, Farrell stars in the remake of “Total Recall,” the latest film in the Irish actor’s years-long project to rehabilitate his image. For a guy who only recently turned 36, he has already experienced several significant career ups and downs in the 12 years since he came to the world’s attention in “Tigerland.” It’s hardly been a smooth road from there to here, but it sure hasn’t been dull.

Farrell made his Hollywood debut in 2000’s “Tigerland,” a nervy change of pace from director Joel Schumacher who at that point was best known for making blockbuster John Grisham and Batman movies. But “Tigerland” was a gritty, low-budget character piece about young men preparing to be shipped off to the Vietnam War, and it starred the unknown Farrell as the rebellious, antiwar Private Roland Bozz. The actor gave the movie an immediate weight and authenticity — he seemed like a star with real chops.

And thus began the first phase of Farrell’s career, that of a serious actor with movie-star looks. It’s entirely possible that he could have chosen to use that momentum as a springboard for thought-provoking roles, Oscar nominations and critics’ accolades. Instead, he quickly transitioned to more Hollywood films, which proved to be a very mixed bag for him. Usually, he was slotted as the up-and-comer next to the established pro (with Tom Cruise in “Minority Report,” with Al Pacino in “The Recruit”), but too often he was involved in dull studio action films like “S.W.A.T.” and “Daredevil,” the token “respected actor” added to the ensemble to give it a little more prestige. This period of Farrell’s career was capped by 2003’s “Phone Booth,” which found him reuniting with Schumacher for a nasty little thriller about a man forced to stay on the phone with an unseen sniper, lest he be killed. While “Phone Booth” wasn’t great, it suggested the kind of star presence Farrell had, even if it didn’t show off his acting skill to its fullest potential.

But by this point, audiences arguably knew Farrell better from his off-camera exploits than by anything he had done on film. He was linked to starlets like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. He had a problem with drugs and alcohol. And by all accounts, he was pretty miserable. “I had created an environment for myself, a way of living for myself which, on the outside, seemed incredibly gregarious and vivacious,” he later told interviewer Jonathan Ross. “I don’t believe I have any chemical predisposition towards depression, but let’s just say I was suffering from a spiritual malady for years and I indulged it.” If there was a low point, it might have been “Alexander,” the critically savaged 2004 Oliver Stone historical epic that Farrell spent more than a year filming. A few weeks after “Alexander’s” release, which was met with audience apathy, Farrell hosted “Saturday Night Live” for the first time, and in his opening monologue he joked about the film’s failure and then did a bit where he played into his persona as an arrogant womanizer who got by on his looks and accent. In the span of a few years, Farrell had gone from being viewed as a promising young star to being dismissed as a hopeless party boy.

If it became easy to write Farrell off, there were still signs that he had the goods as an actor. At the time, his turn in “The New World” was deemed by some a surprise: What was a lightweight like him doing anchoring a film by the great Terrence Malick? But it was a nuanced, grieving performance that gave the film’s central love story a soul. And even if “Miami Vice” was an overblown thriller, Farrell’s haunted cop helped cut through the macho bluster elsewhere. Very quietly, Farrell was honing his soulful side.

That came through even more gloriously in two films released in 2008. In the underrated Woody Allen drama “Cassandra’s Dream,” he plays a luckless London lad who can’t live with himself after he commits murder to help pay off his gambling debts. Showing none of the sharp swagger of his earlier roles, Farrell was touchingly, painfully vulnerable in “Cassandra’s Dream” — it felt like seeing him for the first time. Then came “In Bruges,” a tart crime comedy-thriller that once again featured Farrell as a would-be tough guy who simply doesn’t have the stomach for the dark side. (He plays a hitman who inadvertently kills a boy on his first job.) This newfound lack of cockiness didn’t make Farrell dull; rather, it revealed depths that something like “S.W.A.T.” simply didn’t. Critics warmed up to him again, and he won a Golden Globe for his “In Bruges” performance.

Since then, he’s bravely bounced from role to role, seemingly freed of the expectations of his early career. Also undoubtedly helpful, he got sober. (“You develop such f***ed-up attachments that you need to be confused and in pain and high to create art,” he said in 2010 by way of explaining his earlier bad-boy behavior.) Not all of those roles have been successful — he’s enjoyably game, if a bit one-note, as the jerk boss in “Horrible Bosses” — but you can forgive a few misfires for something as eloquent as his turn as the successful country sensation in “Crazy Heart.” For as much praise as Jeff Bridges received for that film — not to mention the Oscar — Farrell’s sweetness and casual confidence in the drama make it one of his very finest performances.

This brings us to this weekend’s “Total Recall,” where he’ll play the role that was originated by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1990 film. (It’s hard to think of two more different actors, which is probably the point.) Despite all his ups and downs, Farrell has emerged as an actor who audiences are still willing to take seriously: a regular guy who’s got a bit of gravitas to him. But for Farrell, “Total Recall” also represents his most concerted attempt in the last few years to prove himself as a box office draw in his own right. Are moviegoers ready to see him that way? That remains to be seen, but considering where Farrell’s career was just a few years ago, it’s achievement enough that he’s come this far to even have that be a legitimate question.

Jessica Biel already out of “The Wolverine”

071612-jessica-biel1

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Well, that was fast. Only two days after it was reported that Jessica Biel was interested in playing Viper in “The Wolverine,” talks have reportedly broken down.

Collider has the news, saying that 20th Century Fox is now talking to other actresses about the role. No news on why Biel turned it down, but it could have something to do with the fact much of the production is set overseas in Australia and Japan.

It’s at least exciting news that Hydra is going to be a seemingly major part of the film’s story. The character is best known for blackmailing Logan into marrying her as a part of a scheme created by the criminal organization Hydra, but it’s believed that she might have had some romantic feelings for the X-men mixed in with all her evil machinations.

Hopefully Fox will go with a lesser-known, more up-and-coming actress than Biel for this role. While she should be someone recognizable, it might be too much for “The Wolverine” to handle if Viper is played by a star as popular as Hugh Jackman. The majority of this cast is lesser-known, so having too popular a leading lady might not give them enough room to shine.

“The Wolverine” will hit theaters on July 26, 2013.

Who do you think should play Viper in this movie? Tell us in the comments section below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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