Shelf Life: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Total Recall”

Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall

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“At that age” movies are not just a phenomenon that I’ve mentioned (or coined, perhaps) before in Shelf Life columns, they’re almost literally the reason for it at all. There’s a whole universe of films we see when we’re kids, adolescents, or during other formative moments in our lives that stick with us or mean something. Needless to say that doesn’t mean they’re good, no matter how much we love them. But one part of being an adult is distinguishing between the things we embrace emotionally, and the things we process intellectually.

All of which brings us to “Total Recall.” In 1990, I was 14 years old, and by then I’d been introduced to the world of R-rated entertainment, and in particular the oeuvre of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was in so many ways – including literally – larger than life, and his films kind of exploded in my brain as a kind of adult escapism that I’d never encountered before. Nevertheless, my mom had to buy my ticket for “Recall,” but it became yet another watershed moment in my evolution as a moviegoer. With the release of a remake and a spanking-new Blu-ray this week, it seemed like high time to revisit the film and see whether my halcyon memories held up.

The Facts:

After opening on June 1, 1990, “Total Recall” was a massive hit upon its release, earning more than $260 million during its theatrical run. Its development was a labyrinth of false starts and revisions: David Cronenberg and Dino DeLaurentis were both attached at different times in the 1980s, before screenwriters Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon finally found a game collaborator in Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven recruited several of his former collaborators, including actor Ronny Cox to play Cohaagen, cinematographer Jost Vacano and special effects designer Rob Bottin, who effectively used this film as a showcase for some of the last miniature and practical effects the industry would use before the advent of CGI permanently changed special effects.

Bottin, Eric Brevig, Tim McGovern and Alex Funke received Oscars – an Academy Special Achievement Award for visual effects. The film was also nominated for Academy Awards for Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Sound.Meanwhile, the film maintains an 81 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

What Still Works:

Viscerally, “Total Recall” is still a blast. Verhoeven, coming off of “Robocop,” was working on all cylinders as a purveyor of gritty, gruesome action that actually possessed a thoughtful undercurrent, and like its predecessor, “Recall” satirizes consumerism, totalitarian control as well as examines man’s control of his own body. The action is spectacularly violent – so much so that I literally remember reading local reviews talking about its violent content – but the glib and almost fun way that it indulges this not only resembles the tone of the action in “Robocop,” but enhances the audience’s embrace of such exaggerated and fantastical scenarios.

By 1990, Schwarzenegger was one of the biggest stars in the world, and he’d eased into a screen persona that didn’t seem altogether far from his real personality – or at the very least, didn’t require him to do a lot of heavy lifting, at least acting-wise. But as Roger Ebert observes in his review of the remake, Schwarzenegger’s lumbering presence really complements this film’s underlying concepts in an odd way, because he seems disoriented in a world (cinematically speaking) that functions so cerebrally. That’s not to say that Schwarzenegger gives a bad performance, or he’s unconvincing in the role, but that as Douglas Quaid, the actor is at once comfortable commanding the screen and out of his element working with material that’s intellectually more complex than most of what he’d done before.

Finally, the greatest thing about “Total Recall” is that it’s entirely possible that everything that happens in the film is in fact straightforward fulfillment of the “ego trip” Quaid pays for when he visit Rekall. As Malena, Rachel Ticotin appears on the viewscreen when he’s choosing a companion for his vacation. He asks to go to Mars as a secret agent deep undercover who finds himself on the run from killers. And in the end, he saves the planet and gets the girl. Even the backgrounds and landscapes of Mars are viewed in the Rekall sequence, giving further credence to the possibility that he’s simply acting out his fantasy and the story is not as multi-layered as it otherwise seems.

What Doesn’t Work:

Although the special effects are slightly outdated – especially in an era of CGI – the practical make-up and other prosthetics are all top-notch, so I suppose that isn’t necessarily a complaint. The film is oddly bright in its photography which seems to undermine the rest of its detail and style, but it’s also a film which seems eager to hold nothing back and almost create a cartoonish, exaggerated depiction of this fantastical world.

What’s the Verdict:

“Total Recall” may or may not be a movie that newcomers to it embrace, at least if they’re more conventionally familiar with current special effects techniques and/or the more gritty and humanized approach of modern action movies. But everything that worked in 1990 continues to work now, and it retains all of the entertainment value it ever held, thanks in no small part to the collaboration between Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven. Ultimately, the film is a smart, fun, exciting and engaging sci-fi adventure that examines some deeper ideas – from biological to philosophical – without becoming either simplistic or didactic. In short, “Total Recall” is a great film, which is the only reason why it should even be considered for a remake – to get to recall all of those great qualities all over again.


Bourne to Run

10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Bourne Movies

Catch The Bourne Ultimatum this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

You know his name, as the Super Bowl teaser for the upcoming summer blockbuster Jason Bourne reminded us. In this era of franchise films, that seems to be more than enough to get another entry in the now 15-year-old series greenlit. And gosh darn it if we aren’t into it. Before you catch The Bourne Ultimatum on IFC, here are some surprising facts about the Bourne movies that you may not know. And unlike Jason Bourne, try not to forget them.

10. Matt Damon was a long shot to play Jason Bourne.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Coming off of Good Will Hunting and The Legend of Bagger Vance, early ’00s Matt Damon didn’t exactly scream “ripped killing machine.” In fact, Brad Pitt, Russell Crowe and even Sylvester Stallone were all offered the part before it fell into the hands of the Boston boy made good. It was his enthusiasm for director Doug Liman’s more frenetic vision that ultimately helped land him the part.

9. Love interest Marie was almost played by Sarah Polley.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Damon wasn’t the only casting surprise. Franka Potente, of Run Lola Run fame, wasn’t the filmmaker’s first choice for the role or Marie in The Bourne Identity. In fact, Liman wanted his Go star Sarah Polley for the part, but she turned it down in favor of making indie movies back in Canada. A quick rewrite changed the character from American Marie Purcell to European Marie Helena Kreutz, and the rest is movie history.

8. Director Doug Liman was obsessed with the Bourne books.

Universal Picutres

Universal Pictures

Liman had long been a fan of the Bourne book series. When Warner Bros.’ rights to the books lapsed in the late ’90s, Liman flew himself to author Robert Ludlum’s Montana home, mere days after earning his pilot’s license. The author was so impressed with his passion for the material, he sold the rights on the spot.

7. Liman’s father actually worked for the NSA.

Universal Picutres

Universal Pictures

Part of Liman’s fasciation with the Bourne series was that his own father played the same spy craft games portrayed in the books while working for the NSA. In fact, many of the Treadstone details were taken from his father’s own exploits, and Chris Cooper’s character, Alex Conklin, was based on Oliver Stone, whom Arthur Liman famously cross examined as chief counsel of the Iran-Contra hearings.

6. Tony Gilroy threw the novel’s story out while writing The Bourne Identity.

Universal Picutres

Universal Picutres

Despite being based on a hit book, screenwriter Tony Gilroy, coming off of The Devil’s Advocate, had no idea how to adapt it into a movie. He said the book was more concerned with people “running to airports” than character, and would need a complete rewrite. Director Doug Liman agreed, and Gilroy claims to have condensed the original novel into the first five minutes. Getting that out of the way, he then wrote his own story, based on a man who wakes up one day not remembering anything but how to kill.

5. Damon walked like a boxer to get into character.

Universal Picutres

Universal Picutres

Damon had never played a character like Bourne before, and was searching for a way to capture his physicality. Doug Liman told him to walk like a boxer to give Jason Bourne an edge. Damon took that to heart, training for six months in boxing, marital arts and firearms.

4. Damon broke an actor’s nose.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Damon’s training for the films is legendary, but mistakes still happen. While filming a scene for The Bourne Ultimatum, Damon hit actor Tim Griffin so hard, he shattered his nose. Apparently, the space the scene was filmed in was smaller than originally intended, throwing Damon off just enough to exert a real beat down.

3. James Bond visited The Bourne Legacy set.

Eon Productions

Eon Productions

Actor Daniel Craig stopped by the set of The Bourne Legacy to visit his wife, actress Rachel Weisz, who was starring in the movie. While having James Bond on a Bourne set must have been exciting, The Bourne Legacy was the only Bourne movie to not actually feature Jason Bourne, meaning our bets on who would kick whose ass would have to wait for another day.

2. The Bourne Identity was nearly a bomb (in the box office sense).

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

As reshoots began to pile up, and an all-out war between the studio and director Doug Liman spilled into the press, expectations were that The Bourne Identity was going to flop. Matt Damon told GQ that, “the word on Bourne was that it was supposed to be a turkey…It’s very rare that a movie comes out a year late, has four rounds of reshoots, and it’s good.”

1. Matt Damon wasn’t the first actor to play Bourne.

Warner Brothers Television

Warner Brothers Television

Aired on ABC in 1988, the TV movie adaptation of The Bourne Identity, while not exactly critically acclaimed, was a more faithful version of Ludlum’s book. Richard Chamberlain, of The Thorn Birds fame, played a much less ass-kicking spy, while “Charlie’s Angel” Jaclyn Smith played love interest Marie. If you like your Bourne movies heavy with poorly lit ’80s melodrama, this might just be the adaptation for you. Otherwise, you should catch The Bourne Ultimatum when it airs this month on IFC.

“Casa de mi Padre” bonus feature unveils mass confusion of its cast

Will Ferrell in Casa de mi Padre bonus features

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If you haven’t had the pleasure of viewing Will Ferrell’s send-up of Spanish-language telenuovas “Casa de mi Padre,” you know have the chance with the film’s arrival on DVD and Blu-ray this week. And when you finish watching and scratch your head, you won’t be alone. According to one of the movie’s special features, its cast was equally confused about what exactly they were participating in.

Take a gander at the video below to see what we mean, and then click here to watch our interviews with Will and the cast.

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Will you be checking out “Casa de mi Padre” on DVD or Blu-ray? Let us know in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.

Tim Grierson on the Underrated “The Three Stooges,” Now Out on DVD

The Three Stooges

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There’s a real art to doing dumb well. Plenty of movies and TV shows aim to stir the soul and touch the heart, but some don’t care about any of that: They just want to make you giggle your ass off. Because these types of broad comedies don’t have high aspirations, critics sometimes have a tendency to label them guilty pleasures, as if to say sheepishly, “I know I’m not supposed to like this, but I do.” But I don’t feel guilty at all about my enjoyment of the “Three Stooges” movie that came out earlier this year. It may have been a commercial disappointment, but I can’t think of any movie in 2012 that made me laugh as much as this one. It comes out on DVD on Tuesday — give it a shot.

“The Three Stooges,” based on the comedy act that started in the mid-‘20s, was a movie that directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly have wanted to make for quite some time. In 2009, it looked like the Farrellys had found a high-powered cast for their film: Sean Penn, Jim Carrey and Benicio Del Toro. But over time, all three actors had to drop out, leaving the filmmakers to go with a far-less-starry trio: Sean Hayes as Larry, Will Sasso as Curly, and Chris Diamantopoulos as Moe. There were a lot of risks in going with actors who weren’t big names — although Sean Hayes was well known from “Will & Grace” — but so much of what makes the “Three Stooges” film great is thanks to these three. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine the movie without them.

Divided into three episodes, “The Three Stooges” doesn’t have much of a story — the stooges have to raise a bunch of money for their beloved orphanage, which leads them to be unwitting patsies in a murder plot — but like with a good musical, you’re not watching this movie for artful storytelling. No, it’s all about the gags, the slapstick, and the utter stupidity, and there is plenty of all three to savor. But to enjoy it, you’ll have to hook into this movie’s mindset, which is blissfully innocent and sincere. Outside of action movies, there probably hasn’t been a more violent film all year than “The Three Stooges,” but its constant pokes in the eye and knocks on the head are delivered with a bloodless, giddy sweetness that’s inviting rather than repellant. Inspired and tightly choreographed, the stooges’ antics have a buzzsaw comic momentum to them that makes you sit back and wonder at the sheer looniness of it all. Like with a musical, “The Three Stooges” is a feast of beautiful movement, except in this case that involves people receiving injuries that, in real life, would leave the individuals with severe brain damage.

The physical demands of these roles are impressive, but the three actors also succeed in evoking their characters’ spirit. The original Moe, Larry and Curly — played by Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Howard — are iconic, which could have been intimidating, but the film’s stars sidestep the problem by approaching their roles with a lot of love, not to mention a lot of skill. Diamantopoulos, Hayes and Sasso look like their counterparts, but it’s their total commitment to the film’s cheerful stupidity that really makes their camaraderie shine. In retrospect, these actors were taking an enormous risk diving headfirst into material that’s willfully juvenile and totally lacking in any sense of ironic detachment. Like the Farrelly brothers, these actors have to love the stooges’ world unabashedly for any of this to work, and it’s a credit to everyone involved — including Larry David in a supporting role as a hilariously nagging nun — that the movie’s tonal control is so complete. Everybody working on “The Three Stooges” has come together to make one of the stupidest comedies you’ll ever see — so stupid you may have a tough time stopping laughing.

Of course, “The Three Stooges” is in a fine tradition of expertly-executed moronic comedies. The filmmaking team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker made a few great ones in the 1980s, including “Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun.” Reviewing “The Naked Gun” in 1988, Roger Ebert described the experience of watching brilliantly stupid comedies better than just about anyone:

You laugh, and then you laugh at yourself for laughing. Some of the jokes are incredibly stupid. Most of them are dumber than dumb. Yet this is not simply a string of one-liners. There is a certain manic logic to the progression of the film.

That’s what “The Three Stooges” is like. Sure, there’s plenty of stuff that doesn’t work in the film. (Don’t filmmakers know that one of the reasons I love movies is that they provide me a venue where I don’t have to see members of “Jersey Shore”?) But the pure, uncomplicated joy of “The Three Stooges” is not something that’s easily replicated. So many films strive for an edgy hipness that the posturing can occasionally be unbearable. By comparison, “The Three Stooges” — despite its repetitive, brutal shenanigans — just wants to give you a big, warm hug. How can you resist?

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