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Friday
Aug032012

Total Recall

The Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, Total Recall, from 1990 didn’t have high aspirations. It was a campy movie full of hilarious one-liners, explosive, gory action and oddly intriguing sexuality, like the now infamous mutant woman with three breasts and a midget hooker. It was off-the-wall fun and it knew it, fully embracing its silliness from beginning to end. This week’s high octane remake, also titled Total Recall, follows a similar narrative path as the original, but somehow manages to be its exact opposite. Camp is replaced with seriousness, gore is replaced with PG-13 scuffles and the three breasted woman is…well, she’s still there (even if they do cut away before you’re allowed a good look).

By the end of the 21st century, chemical warfare brought on by a third World War has made our planet practically uninhabitable. Earth has been divided into two superpowers, the Resistance and the oppressive Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), which are in a battle for supremacy in a world gone awry. Most citizens are lowly factory workers who spend their days building police robots for the Chancellor in his efforts to stop the Resistance. One of those citizens is Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell). He’s married to the beautiful Lori (Kate Beckinsale), but he nevertheless needs some excitement. One day, he decides to go to Rekall, a company that implants artificial memories into the heads of their customers, essentially allowing them to live out any type of fantasy they wish. While there, something goes wrong and the police force busts in. Next thing he knows, Quaid’s wife is trying to kill him and he’s on the run from the very machines he helped build. The strange thing is now he’s now being told he’s actually a secret agent; he just doesn’t remember it.

Those familiar with the 1990 original will both be in for a treat and a disappointment when watching this update. With plenty of sly references to the original, including a redheaded woman passing through a security gate (“Two weeks” she says when asked how long her trip will be), there is no shortage of little Easter eggs to be found. But sometimes those finds aren’t for the betterment of the film itself. Many of the lines (or at least variations of them) from the original are spoken here as well, but their tone is significantly different. While lines like “If I’m not me, then who the hell am I?” were played as humorous before, they’re played depressingly straight here. All the fun has been sucked out in favor of telling a darker story, but one that lacks substance.

That’s not to say the original had much substance to it, but it then again it never claimed it did. Both are so packed full of action that they hardly have time to tell a particularly engaging story. The difference, however, is that the original was knowingly silly, so it was easy to forgive. This Total Recall, on the other hand, tries to make you care. It wants the conclusion to be something you cheer for, but most cheers will be coming simply from the fact that it’s over rather than because the story has grabbed hold of you. With its over-stylized action scenes and constant forward motion, the characters hardly get breathers and their relationships are never built like they need to be. It’s not necessarily that I didn’t care about what happened to them that bugged me, but that the movie wanted me to, but provided no justification as to why I should.

Much like the original, the big question at the end is whether or not what we saw actually happened or if it’s just a byproduct of the Rekall implant. The question isn’t necessarily a hard one to answer in either movie when you consider certain things (that I’ll leave for you to figure out), but at least the answer had some slight ambiguity in the original. In the remake, it’s more or less cut and dry, despite trying to force that ambiguity in right at the end. The larger question outside the context of the films is: does it even matter? The answer in regards to this remake is a resounding no. This weekend, when you’re thinking about heading to the theater to see it, don’t and watch the original instead.

Total Recall receives 2/5

Friday
Dec092011

New Year's Eve

There are lots of different aspects of a movie that can make or break it. One of the most important is focus. When a movie meanders too much or introduces too many characters or tries to juggle multiple stories in its short runtime, it almost never works. The exception to that rule is 2003’s Love Actually, a delightful, though still certainly flawed romance that now ranks among many people’s must watch love stories. Last year’s Valentine’s Day attempted to recreate that movie’s charm and scraped by on the skin of its teeth. Now that film’s director is attempting to recreate his own recreation with New Year’s Eve, an unwise decision. The small amount of luck he had with Valentine’s Day is all but gone and most of the joy that comes from watching it is due to how bad it gets as it draws nearer to its conclusion. New Year’s Eve takes cheese to an entirely new level.

The film is told through a number of vignettes featuring characters on December 31st, 2011 as they prepare for what the new year will bring. There’s Claire (Hilary Swank), the person in charge of the New York City ball drop, Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer), an unhappy record company employee who has just quit her job, Paul (Zac Efron), the young delivery boy Ingrid buys for the day to help her meet a list of goals before midnight, Stan (Robert De Niro), an old man dying in the hospital, Aimee (Halle Berry), his nurse, Tess (Jessica Biel), who is close to giving birth but is trying to hold out with her husband Griffin (Seth Meyers) until midnight because the first family to give birth in the new year gets a large cash prize, and Grace (Sarah Paulson) and James Schwab (Til Schweiger), the competing pregnant couple across the hall.

Believe it or not, I haven’t even come close to naming off all the film’s characters. Not mentioned in the above synopsis are Cary Elwes, Alyssa Milano, Common, Carla Gugino, Katherine Heigl, Jon Bon Jovi, Sofia Vergara, Ashton Kutcher, Lea Michele, James Belushi, Sarah Jessica Parker, Abigail Breslin, Josh Duhamel, Ludacris and more. The film leaves no celebrity unturned, even going so far as to give Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson on The Simpsons, a supporting role. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy playing “spot the celebrity,” but it doesn’t make for the most structured movie. Rather than introducing them organically through the needs of the story, they are introduced just as they are, as celebrities. It becomes distracting.

But in a movie with so little going for it, that hardly matters. As expected with a film that crams so much in a small amount of time, none of the individual stories are given room to breathe. Most are sped through so as not to make the movie five hours long, which gives little time for characterization. The two or three interesting stories are either overshadowed by a dozen other lousy ones or undermined by poor writing, where conflicts are thrown in arbitrarily in a desperate attempt to build emotion by the end, like the scene where Paul stands alone in a room with Ingrid and talks to his pal on the phone about how pathetic she is, as if she can’t hear him while she’s standing a few yards away. Moments like these derail New Year’s Eve from what is already a pretty wobbly track.

But hating the film is not easy. It’s cheery and optimistic, even if that optimism borders on annoyance. It knows its audience and it panders to them. The simplicity of its story is exactly what the people who go to see this will want, so in a strange way, you could almost call it a success. Luckily, however, its simplicity doesn’t carry all the way to its end. There are a few legitimate surprises in store for its viewers, a twist or two that actually manage to create some intrigue as the clock strikes midnight for the characters, even though the film’s window for emotion is long gone by then. Still, getting to those clever twists is a chore. New Year’s Eve is only two hours long, but its gooey amounts of cheese and hilariously awful song numbers will make it feel like you’re watching the whole stupid day unfold.

New Year’s Eve receives 1.5/5

Friday
Jun112010

The A-Team

I’m an 80’s child. I grew up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ghostbusters. I know every word to the Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right (To Party!).” I lived and breathed the “Super Mario Brothers” video game. But some things simply came before my time, namely “The A-Team” whose series was wrapping up by the time I emerged from the womb. Having never seen an episode, I don’t have much to compare it to, but the 2010 movie adaptation is nevertheless tons of fun.

The A-Team follows a group of Army Rangers who are wrongfully accused of a crime and put in prison, but quickly break out only to find themselves on the run to clear their names. There’s Hannibal (Liam Neeson), the fearless leader, Face (Bradley Cooper), the reckless womanizer, Murdock (Sharlto Copley), the mentally unstable pilot, and B.A. (Quinton Jackson), the tough looking pacifist who takes a vow of peace after his wrongful imprisonment.

Truth be told, it’s all rather confusing. There’s a prominent CIA figure named Lynch (Patrick Wilson) who may not be who he claims, the beautiful Charisa Sosa (Jessica Biel) who has had a romantic history with Face and is tracking him down, a group of black op mercenaries who are after the same thing as the A-team, and General Morrison (Gerald McRaney) who is the only person able to legitimize the group’s story and clear their names, but dies unexpectedly in an explosion. It’s another one of those movies where the story is not so much incoherent, but insubstantial. It exists solely as a string of flimsy reasons to get the team to the next wild action scene.

And wild they are. Too many action movies feel generic and outdated, but I saw the team do things here that I’ve never seen before, like fly a tank. Yeah, they fly a tank. It’s an action scene that is clearly over-the-top and unbelievable, but you won’t care because that’s the movie’s goal. It balances its somewhat realistic feeling with its crazy stunts almost perfectly. You’ll always anticipate what is coming next, but you'll never find yourself disappointed. It continually tops itself with more and more ludicrous events at every turn.

It seems pointless to say because it should be readily apparent by now, but this picture rarely takes itself seriously and when it does, well, those are the parts that don’t work out too well. The romance between Face and Charisa works only in the end and the speech from Hannibal on “fighting for what you believe in” is unnecessary. But these are slight moments in an otherwise outrageous movie.

The film’s success comes from many things, but it’s clear that much of it comes not only from the frantic, stylized direction from Joe Carnahan, but also from the terrific performances from the cast. Along with this and Taken, Liam Neeson has proven himself as an awesome action star, Copley shows he’s not a one hit wonder after District 9 and provides most of the film’s many laughs, and Bradley Cooper is charmingly brass as Face. The sole weak point of the group is Jackson, a UFC fighter, whose small previous film roles have not prepared him to carry this character. He’s not terrible, but his inexperience shows.

With a rocking soundtrack and outlandish action scenes, The A-Team emits fun for two hours straight. It may not be for everybody and I’m well aware that many will walk out feeling underwhelmed, but I found it to be a real standout in what has so far been a mediocre year for action movies.

The A-Team receives 4/5

Friday
Feb122010

Valentine's Day

There are few days of the year that make me feel as miserable as I do on Valentine's Day. It's one of those days where the single become non-existent, where swooning couples become the center of attention. As far as this day is concerned, if you aren't in a relationship, you mean nothing. My cynicism for the day goes far beyond what I've typed here, so imagine my dismay at the thought of sitting through a movie that bears its title. But my job is not to judge based on my preconceived thoughts on the actual day, but rather on the film itself and in doing so I found that Valentine's Day actually isn't half bad.

Much like Love Actually, Valentine's Day features an ensemble cast with dozens of notable actors including Julia Roberts, Bradley Coooper, Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Jennifer Garner, Jamie Foxx, Patrick Dempsey, Topher Grace, Anne Hathaway, Ashton Kutcher, Taylor Lautner and even Taylor Swift. However, this is more like a second rate Love Actually rather than a direct comparison. While that film is an absolute delight and explores love in more authentic ways, Valentine's Day is hit and miss with more than its fair share of poorly drawn out romances that feel forced from the page. There isn't a single normal relationship in the entire movie. Even the 51 year old relationship between veteran actors Hector Elizondo and Shirley MacLaine that is meant to show the everlasting endurance of true love proves to be less perfect than expected, with an unnecessary affair popping up in conversation halfway through the movie.

Now, I've purposely skipped over the plot description of the film because there are a large number of storylines, with each character sporting their own, and they are juggled relatively well. Most of them get equal screen time, though a few are left at the wayside and never fully come to a conclusion.

Keeping in mind the actors above, it's easy to see how inconsistent this movie can be. With great talent from Julia Roberts, Jamie Foxx and Anne Hathaway comes the less so Taylor Lautner, Jessica Alba and Ashton Kutcher. Actually, the first two characters introduced in the entire movie were Kutcher and Alba with a scene that ends in their engagement. Kutcher and Alba? That's a recipe for disaster.

Surprisingly, Kutcher's storyline ended up being the best part of the movie. He's the guy that I suspect most men in the audience will relate to the most. He's euphoric with the thought of love after his engagement, but even when he later realizes love isn't as joyous as he originally imagined, he thinks of others. He finds his friends and tries to prevent them from making the same mistakes and feeling the pain that he does. He's a wholly likable guy, most notably when a young boy walks in his flower shop and orders a dozen roses for his elementary school crush. He hands over 11 dollars, far short of what a dozen roses costs and Kutcher simply smiles and asks what the lucky girl's name is. His character is written well and he downplays his usual insufferable comedic antics to fit the role. It still feels weird saying it, but Ashton Kutcher was the shining light in an otherwise mediocre film.

Of course, his storyline was still fairly predictable, as were nearly all of the others. I knew exactly what was going to happen to Garner, Biel, and even Roberts, whose storyline was nonetheless very sweet. The only one that caught me by surprise was Bradley Cooper's. The movie smartly set his storyline up in a manner that makes you believe you know where it is heading, but then turns it 180 degrees and goes somewhere else. It was this surprise that ultimately pushed me to the side of a recommendation.

Lucky for it because most of this thing simply lacked the charm or wit of its far superior spiritual brethren Love Actually. Not to mention that Taylor Swift is simply atrocious and needs to stay as far away from movie cameras as she possibly can. Of course, expecting it to match Love Actually is lofty, so as long as you don't focus on how much worse it is, you might be surprised at how much better your perception will be.

Valentine's Day receives 2.5/5