Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Note: This review is supposed to be positive

(dir. Len Wiseman, 2012)

If you can say anything about the new “Total Recall” (and believe me, there isn’t much to say about the new “Total Recall”), it’s that its existence isn’t significantly more offensive than a lack of existence.

That is to say, this remake of the 1990 Schwarzenegger isn’t groundbreaking, it isn’t thoughtful, and contrary to its studio’s ironic title card of “Original Film,” it isn’t especially original. This is a somber, largely humorless slog through workman special effects and focus grouped sci-fi ideas. I can’t remember the last special effects extravaganza so joyless in its awesomeness.

And yet, here’s the thing…you could do worse. You could. By coughing up 10 dollars, you also devote two hours of your life, and I feel reasonably confident you won’t spend the movie thinking how you’d otherwise devote them. For all the movie’s faults, director Len Wisemen successfully breezes through to the point that you don’t notice them until the movie is over.

If this summer’s sensational “Prometheus” is eHarmony, consider “Total Recall” to be OkCupid. Technically it’s settling, but eh, whatever.

Based on the 1966 Phillip K. Dick story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” the screenplay concerns a lot of characters that the movie flatters by giving them names, distinguishing them from the other characters who behave in specific ways to move the plot forward. No one in this movie reacts. They just keep on and carry on.

Specifically among them is Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), a factory worker in 2084 suffering from oddly vivid nightmares of being a secret agent, taking on gunfire in a mysterious lab. He visits some seedy pleasure palace called Rekall hoping to learn the source of these dreams. Only instead, actual government agents burst in to arrest him and he unleashes a series of Jason Bourne-style combat moves he wasn’t even aware he had.

Suddenly he finds himself a man on the run from the government, even though he in fact might work FOR the government. This leads him to question whether his reality is in fact a dream, whether it’s the other way around, who he can trust, and what is identity truly is. All fairly top shelf stuff as sci-fi is concerned. Not aggressively unique, but enough to draw you in.

But Wiseman, he of the “Underworld” movies and “Live Free Or Die Hard,” knows what butters his bread. Once these basic questions are laid forth, he merrily zips by them, amping the action sequences waaay up. Some are impressive, like the initial footchase that left me seriously questioning whether this movie would surpass my expectations instead of humbly dropping at my expectations’ feet. Most others are perfunctory. None are imperative. When an audience isn't invested in any characters or their fate, it just becomes a matter of watching the dominoes crash into each other.

For that first third of the movie, though, I legitimately DID feel the movie would be more special than what it ultimately became. And even as shallow ruts go, at least the view is nice. One especially popping chase sequence (of at least three – I stopped counting) takes place inside an elevator shaft that goes up, down, inside, outside, and hey look, sideways. Like a nifty video game that you can’t personally play, but at least it’s well choreographed.

Of course, once the chase concludes, commence rattling off all the ways it defies time, space, and logic (why build elevators that go sideways for a building that appears of average width?). Such is “Total Recall” on the whole. Useless but intermittedly satisfying.

Adjusting expectations to meet a flailing movie can be a difficult thing. I shouldn’t forcibly lower my standards just to avoid admitting I wasted my time. But I also shouldn’t knock a movie that meets the base purpose of filling it. “Time filler” doesn’t exactly make for a ringing movie poster quote. This I agree. And “Total Recall” may be charmless, unnecessary, and thoughtful only in the sense that its screenwriters took enough thought to write it down.

If you choose not to make it part of your day, I can’t blame you. For those looking for a respite from the storm, at least you’ll be greeted by a movie that doesn’t expect you to rise to the occasion any more than it does.

MAGIC MIKE is beefcake served well-done

(dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2012)

Last Tuesday afternoon I sat down at the Mission Valley movie house, medium popcorn in hand and credit card receipt thankfully not listing the movie title, ready to see “Magic Mike.” Young women of similar ages and dress sat near me. We made eye contact. They quickly turned away to indicate it was not intentional. Their cell phones were out texting. My cell phone was in the car, texting service disabled. Some pontificated whether Matthew McConaughey’s nudity would extend beyond the usual shimmering chest.

All of this is not to impress you. Rather it is to indicate that until start time, it felt like I was crashing their party. Then the movie began, and it quickly became clear they crashed mine.

For “Magic Mike” is the DAMNDEST male stripper movie you’re ever likely to see. Closer in spirit to “Boogie Nights” than Chippendales, here is a movie of seediness, grim realities, and how it must feel when your entire resume is a chiseled torso. Any movie about male strippers can capture the gleeful cavalcade of gals hurling dollars at their thrusting beefcake. This one lingers on the scene the next morning as the men sadly smooth those dollars out under phone books.

What drives the movie, even as it gradually descends into depravity, is its sense of dogged earnestness. With the easy charms of stars Channing Tatum and McConaughey, this could have easily delivered a fun girls’ night out that most of its target audience probably expects. Certainly its strip numbers have the exuberant choreography of a musical. Or it could have fell to the traps of self parody, a series of morning-after shots of the dancers waking up next to their own vomit, trudging back into the pit of their own existence.

Instead, director Steven Soderbergh takes a rather obvious thesis – that taking your clothes off for strangers is no way to feel good about yourself – and beholds it with the wonder of a man who just discovered how to turn Grape Nuts into platinum, following that idea right to the end. This might sound like a rather cheap knock at the man and his film. On the contrary - the approach is refreshing and engaging.

You could call this movie silly. You could call it ham fisted. But you sure can’t call it ironic. And thank god for that.

Not to mention the movie’s base fascination as a “how the sausages are made” story. Like “Casino” or “All About Eve” or any good movie that takes us behind the scenes of a forum we already know, “Magic Mike” pops as a work that has done its research. As backhanded a compliment as this might sound, the movie feels like it knows a LOT about male strip clubs. How I love it when a film can present a world to me I never knew before.

This is not a deep movie. This is not a profound movie. What it IS, however, is clear eyed and full-hearted. Some of its characters find happiness in the strip club, some yearn to escape, but they’re all treated to the same respect in a work that weaves comedy, melodrama, and occasional exuberance with ease.

If Gene Kelly showed his nipples in his movies, it might feel something like this.