DID YOU READ

“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.

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Swimming To Cambodia Spalding Gray

Gray's Anatomy

Everything You Need to Know About the Movie That Inspired “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”

Brand new Documentary Now! airs Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom Pictures

This week Documentary Now! spotlights a master monologist with “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything.” Before you tune in at 10P this Wednesday on IFC, check out our guide to Swimming to Cambodia, the 1987 film that captured writer/performer Spalding Gray’s acclaimed one-person show.

Spalding Gray 101

Swimming to Cambodia
Cinecom Pictures

Actor and renowned monologist Spalding Gray spent two years on stage perfecting his Obie Award-winning “Swimming to Cambodia” monologue. In it, Gray tells the story of his eight weeks in Southeast Asia while shooting the 1984 Academy Award-winning movie The Killing Fields. He had a small role, but the experience gave him several anecdotes about hanging out with the film crew and experiencing the local culture, all while searching for “the perfect moment.”

Directed by the Silence of the Lambs Guy

Hannibal Lecter
Orion Pictures/Everett Collection

Acclaimed filmmaker Jonathan Demme took Gray’s two-night, four hour performance and crafted it down to 85 minutes. His use of dramatic lighting, stylish camerawork and a score by performance artist Laurie Anderson was praised by critics and earned the film a cult following. No stranger to groundbreaking docs, Demme also directed the 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, which Documentary Now! pays tribute to in this season’s episode “Final Transmission.”

All about the Voices

While it may have been a one-man show, Gray created a repertoire of characters all with distinctive accents. (He portrayed conversations between himself and others just by turning his head.) Our favorite impressions are of his demanding girlfriend Renee and Ivan Strasberg, the South African director of photography on The Killing Fields who, as depicted by Gray, sounds a bit like a Jamaican surfer.

The Original Cranky New Yorker

In one memorable scene, Gray rants about how his noisy upstairs artist neighbors are driving him and Renee crazy. Even in the mid-’80s, there were New Yorkers complaining that the city wasn’t what it used to be.

Show and Tell

Swimming to Cambodia
Cinecom Pictures/YouTube

A big fan of visual aids, Gray used pull-down maps to illustrate his travels. This helped to bring Swimming to Cambodia to life, since he’s basically sitting at a desk the entire time.

Inspired One-Person Shows

Gray’s groundbreaking performances in Swimming and other documentaries like Monster in a Box and the Steven Soderbergh-directed Gray’s Anatomy (about Gray’s struggle with a rare eye condition) paved the way for future one-person shows. (We wouldn’t have everything from Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking” to Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me” without him.) Even Doc Now! star Fred Armisen got into the one-person show act for his recent SNL monologue.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Spalding Gray when “Parker Gail: Location Is Everything” premieres Wednesday, September 28th at 10P on IFC. 

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Rocky IV Stallone Lundgren

Burning Heart

10 Reasons Why Rocky IV Is the Ultimate Rocky Movie

Catch an all-day Rocky movie marathon this Friday, September 30th on IFC.

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Photo Credit: United Artists/Everett Collection

Sure, most people love the first Rocky for its heart, gripping boxing scenes and the classic training montage. Or, you might love Creed for being both a return-to-form and a new exploration of the Rocky mythology. Maybe the thrill of seeing Mr. T and Hulk Hogan in the same movie makes Rocky III your top pick. Well, sorry, you’re wrong: Rocky IV is the greatest of all the “Italian Stallion”‘s movies.

Before you watch the all-day Rocky movie marathon this Friday, September 30th on IFC (with Rocky IV airing at 8P as part of Rotten Fridays), check out a few reasons to appreciate the fourth installment as the king of the series.

1. The Greatest Opening Ever

How many openings are able to sum up the entire conflict of the film in less than a minute and without a single line of dialogue? And how many of those movies have exploding boxing gloves? Just try to watch the opening sequence above and not be completely psyched for the pumped-up flick to come.


2. Montages!

We all know that the best part of any sports movie is the montage, and Rocky IV doesn’t give you one measly montage. There’s a recap of the previous films montage, a getting to Russia Montage, two training montages and an ending fight montage. That’s five montages! There’s probably a montage of montages snuck in there, too.


3. There’s a Full James Brown Musical Number

This movie is so packed with memorable moments, it’s easy to forget one of the first things that happens in the film: Apollo comes out to fight Drago dressed as a shirtless Uncle Sam, while James Brown and a full band play “Living in America.” To drive home the number’s patriotism, there are dancers in tuxedos and top hats, weird unitards and bowler caps, and bedazzled showgirls with headpieces for miles. Oh, and don’t forget the giant tentacled dragon statue on the stage. This is how every boxing match should start. Heck, this is how we always want to enter a room.


4. The Soundtrack

The Rocky IV soundtrack doesn’t just feature James Brown — it has rock anthems galore, all of which make you immediately want to hit the gym. From “Heart’s on Fire” by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band to “Sweetest Victory” by Touch to multiple Survivor jams, you’ll get pumped and stay pumped. Even the instrumental score rocks! Sure, sometimes it sounds like it was made on a kids Casio, but this soundtrack never quits and — to quote Robert Tepper — never takes the easy way out.


5. Abs!

Rocky IV weights

Every Rocky movie shows off Stallone’s incredible physique, but Rocky IV really ups the game. Not only do we get Dolph Lundgren mostly shirtless looking like a man machine, but we get a wide variety of scenes of Stallone doing impossible tasks. Stallone’s crazy dragon fly crunches, aka a thing no human should be able to do, automatically take this movie to the top.


6. Two words: Ivan Drago

Ivan Drago
United Artists

Not only does Rocky IV explore the global conflict between the US and the Soviet Union, but it encapsulates all of our fears of the Cold War in one perfect villain. Ivan Drago only trains with machines and science and looks like he stepped out of an Aryan Nations recruitment poster. He also only responds in short, cold phrases like “If he dies, he dies,” or “I must break you.” There’s never been a villain who we so clearly want to get the crap beat out of than Ivan Drago.


7. Rocky Makes Chores Look Badass

Rocky saw
United Artists

Rocky doesn’t need to be hooked up to machines to become the perfect fighter. All he needs are huge tires and some outdoor chores to do. No one’s ever looked cooler chopping wood and using tractor parts. Half of his training is lifting an old wagon, probably to fix a broken axle. If anything, this film inspires us to take care of that gardening work we’ve been neglecting.


8. Rocky’s Beard

Rocky IV Beard

Stallone’s beard game is truly on point in Rocky IV. And this isn’t some “I forgot to shave, here’s a little stubble” look. No, we get full out, lumberjack-style beard action. Does any other Rocky movie have our hero looking like an old Russian aristocrat? Another point for Rocky IV.


9. There’s a robot!

Again, there’s so much to Rocky IV, you probably forgot about the robot. Well, Rocky has some money now and he’s not going to spend it on frivolous things for himself. He’s going to buy Paulie a robot! The best part of this scene is how truly disturbed Paulie is by this new technology until he gives it a sexy lady voice.


10. Rocky Ends the Cold War

If you’re still not convinced that Rocky IV is the greatest, answer this question: Does any other Rocky movie bring peace between the US and Russia?

By the end of the film, Rocky rises up to beat the seemingly undefeatable Drago. He fights so well, that even the Russians begin to appreciate his skills. Then, instead of using his victory to prove America’s superiority, he gives a rousing speech of “If I can change and you can change, everybody can change!” The whole crowd goes wild, including all of the Russian government, who we assume give up Communism immediately based solely on Rocky’s words. Stallone’s call for international reconciliation through brutal fighting and a variety of montages makes this if not one of the greatest films of all time, certainly the greatest Rocky of them all.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” movie Rocky IV this Friday at 8P on IFC. 

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Optimus Prime in TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION, from Paramount Pictures.

Rotten Apples

10 Rotten Movie Franchises That Need to Stop

Catch the "Too Rotten to Miss" movie Scary Movie 2 tonight at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

We live in the age of the blockbuster movie franchise. If you want a green-light, you better have tights, a light saber and decades worth of backstory and fan love to build on. And while we love some of these franchises, some just keep getting new entries despite horrible reviews, audience indifference and an utter lack of care from even the people making them.

With IFC and Rotten Tomatoes celebrating “too rotten to miss” movies like Scary Movie 2 this month, we thought it high time to point out just a few franchises than should be retired to the bottom of your Netflix queue. Here are 10 “rotten” movies franchise that need to just go away, please.

10. Transformers

Transformers
Dreamworks Pictures

Hollywood execs, we get it. You grew up in the ’80s, and now you want to produce everything you loved as a child, only make it a lot worse. Here’s the thing: while a show like Stranger Things took all the tropes and style of ’80s movies, and created something new, lingerie commercial director Michael Bay went the opposite way, taking a title and basic concept, and creating a pile of garbage made out of robot parts.

If poop jokes mixed with racism, misogyny and incoherent fight scenes are your thing, this is the franchise for you. If you have even the slightest respect for character or basic story logic, you have to admit this franchise has been awful from frame one. Yes, we were alive in the ’80s, but some things are best left in the past. Unfortunately, with a sixth movie, a Bumblebee spin-off and a proposed G.I. Joe/Transformers crossover movie in the works, this franchise will probably outlive us all.


9. Scary Movie

Scary Movie
Dimension Films

True, its been a couple of years since we’ve been subjected to one of these, but you know that Jamie Kennedy or the Epic Movie guys are sitting in a writers room somewhere, pitching jokes on how to merge The Purge with a fart joke. This franchise started out in a mediocre place, a Wayans family knockoff of better movies like Airplane, and things went downhill from there. You shouldn’t be able to spin five movies out of a few Scream jokes and a Carmen Electra cameo.


8. Alvin and the Chipmunks

Alvin and the Chipmunks
20th Century Fox

Designed to appeal to kids who love ’50s novelty albums and pun-y titles, the Chipmunk franchise feels like it was made by a prop comic from the Uncanny Valley. Full of rapping CGI rodents, and a paycheck cashing Jason Lee, 20th Century Fox has somehow made over a billion dollars off a series of diminishing “Squeakquels.” We do secretly sort of hope these movies keep getting made, just so David Cross keeps getting forced to star in them.


7. X-Men

X-Men Oscar Isaac
20th Century Fox

If we can all be honest with ourselves, these movies have been a mixed bag for the past decade. (Even the foul-mouthed spin-off Deadpool made fun of how self-serious the franchise has become.) In an ever expanding quest to turn the series into a dumbed-down version of the moody mutants’ ’90s cartoon, the stories have gotten paper-thin, the performances phoned in and the monster makeup just this side of Grimace cosplay. (We’re looking at you, X-Men: Apocalypse.)

Do we really need to see Hugh Jackman’s take on Wolverine for the ninth time? There is only so much steamed chicken and protein powder this man can eat before this franchise legitimately becomes a form of torture. Fox Studios, there are enough superheroes on the big screen right now. Maybe let this one go, and a decade from now Marvel can reclaim it and make some good movies again.


6. Tarzan

Tarzan
Warner Bros.

There have been over 200 projects starring Tarzan since pictures started motioning at the turn of the last century. 200! This vaguely racist story of a white man taming the, ahem, Dark Continent, has been told ad nauseam. We know Hollywood loves to keep beating iconic characters into the ground, and Tarzan probably has near universal name recognition, but that doesn’t mean that anyone wants to, you know, go and watch a movie about the guy, no matter how ripped Alexander Skarsgard’s abs are.


5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Tarzan
Paramount Pictures

These “heroes in a half shell” were a stretch for movie stardom back at the peak of their popularity, but thanks to some ingenious work by The Jim Henson Company, and Vanilla Ice’s “Ninja Rap,” they were able to have a moment during the early ’90s.

Now, decades later, Michael Bay’s desperate desire to ruin all of our childhoods has found its way to these pizza loving turtles with ‘tude. The CGI monstrosities that have resulted can barely be called movies. Like the Transformers franchise, but with more creepy scenes of an anthropomorphic turtle hitting on Megan Fox, these movies are a nail in the coffin of ’80s nostalgia, and need to be put to bed before Bay starts sniffing around the Thundercats.


4. Now You See Me

Now You See Me
Summit Entertainment

Magic tricks are impressive when you see them performed live. The fun is in wondering how they could possibly do that. When you watch a bunch of Christopher Nolan castoffs performing CGI tricks created in post production, the only thing you’re left wondering is what the point even was.

This is perhaps the strangest movie franchise to come along in awhile, a collection of genres tropes quilted together by a cavalcade of filmdom’s best supporting actors. Take a bit of Ocean’s Eleven, and a touch of The Prestige. Add a pinch of Morgan Freeman and James Franco’s brother, and cross your fingers that audiences will be dumb enough to line up for a sequel to that movie they didn’t totally hate when they saw it on an airplane that time.


3. God’s Not Dead

Pure Flix Entertainment
Pure Flix Entertainment

The Christian movie genre has blown-up over the last decade. God’s Not Dead, and its sequel, were beneficiaries of this expanding audience, raking in tens of millions of dollars at the box office. But, despite connecting with an audience, all is not well in God’s Not Dead-land.

These insipid movies, that never met a straw man they didn’t hate, tell laughable stories about the evils of college campuses and the ACLU, full of cartoonish villains whose sole purpose in life is to crush good Christian souls. With a “who’s who” of “Remember Them??” in the cast, including TV’s Superman Dean Cain and TV’s Hercules Kevin Sorbo, these movies are as poorly produced as the message they’re espousing. God may not be dead, but the careers of the filmmakers behind these movies should be.


2. Bridget Jones

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

It’s been more than a decade since the last Bridget Jones movie was foisted on us, and in that time young Bridget has remained the same self-involved, unrealistically clumsy mess. With pacing that makes each movie feel 10 hours long, sub-par slapstick and an unlikeable lead, the Bridget Jones trilogy too often feels like Sex and the City without the sex or the city.

Just because the book series your franchise is based on churns out another entry doesn’t necessarily mean you need to get the gang back together. Well, some of the gang, considering Hugh Grant wisely let Dr. McDreamy himself Patrick Dempsey fill in for him this go around. Remember when Renee Zellweger was an acclaimed, Oscar-winning actress? Yeah, that was a long time ago…


1. Avatar

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Seriously, is anyone really excited for the four sequels that James Cameron has promised us to this box office breaking blockbuster from 2009? Yes, at the time the 3D wonderland of CGI planets and tail sex was a revelation, making us overlook the fact that we were watching a hokey Dances With Wolves knockoff starring an actor with the approximate charisma of a broken toaster. But over the last few years, Avatar has slipped from the public consciousness. When’s the last time you popped in your Blu-ray of it, or saw someone cosplaying a Na’vi, or even mentioned it in casual conversation? If Cameron were making one sequel, okay, but four? FOUR? Maybe it’s best to just remember Avatar for what it was — a blue-hued fluke, and move on.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” flick Scary Movie 2 this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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