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Would-be Blockbuster 'Total Recall' is Forgettable

Go see 'sweet' indie documentary 'Searching for Sugar Man' instead.

In the 1980s and '90s, there was a select group of bodybuilders or athletes-turned-actors including Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme who starred in action flicks of wildly inconsistent quality. The greatest of these actors was Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

Moviegoers flocked to see him flex his considerable physical and less-toned acting muscles in classics like Terminator, and shlock like Running Man. The original 1990 release Total Recall was one of his most successful and well-reviewed efforts. Based on Philip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," it became a cult favorite for its impressive special effects, largely contributed by famed Hollywood FX bad boy Rob Bottin. 

It was Bottin, for example, who came up with the innovative bomb-laden fat lady disguise that many fans of the movie remember. Total Recall went on to win a Special Achievement Award at the Academy Awards, for special effects.  At the time, critic Roger Ebert called it "one of the most complex and visually interesting science fiction movies in a long time." As with director Paul Verhoeven's Robocop, it was however seen by many reviewers as excessively violent.

Painting by numbers

As Hollywood is wont to do, it has now been remade with high production values, a huge budget, and new stars. While it isn't awful, it does feel a bit soulless, like the cinematic equivalent of painting by numbers. Colin Farrell replaces Schwarzenegger, with Kate Beckinsale and Jessical Biel playing the villainess and love interest respectively. The story is still about Doug Quaid, a future factory-working man who, in an attempt to rid himself of a series of violent nightmares, visits Rekall. 

This corporation implants artificial memories of the lives of their clients' greatest dreams. As things go awry, it triggers talents and skills Quaid never knew he had, that make it look suspiciously like he's a secret agent. The bad girl starts a film-long quest to track him down and kill him, while the good girl attempts to jog his memories and feelings while she leads him back into a former life involving the resistance movement. Lots of chases, gun battles and special effects ensue.  

If that all sounds boring, or loses you, you aren't alone. While Total Recall of 2012 is a diverting action-er, it feels also wholly forgettable. After two days of letting the movie settle (as is Cinema Siren's way), it all seems rather a blur.  The actors, especially Colin Farrell, are serviceable enough, but not to the tune of the $200 million budget.  

Best aspect: production design

The production design is perhaps the best aspect of the movie, although somewhat reminiscent of Blade Runner, which is no surprise to see in any dystopic future mega-cityscape; it still offers a lovely rain-drenched Asian-influenced feast for the eyes.   

I liken a comparison between the original Total Recall and the remake to the difference between King's Dominion's wooden coaster "Rebel Yell," built in 1975, and the newer steel-made "Intimidator 305." The wooden coaster ride lasts longer. It's rickety, but you walk away charmed and happy, appreciating the talent and skill it takes to build a roller coaster that has stood the test of time.  The Intimidator is faster, sleeker and ascends farther, but folks complain of blacking out from the speed of it and missing most of the ride.  

This remake isn't awful. However, I would put to you that there are many exciting, entertaining movies that have been exceedingly well-reviewed still in the theaters (The Avengers, Spiderman, Dark Knight) where your money will be better spent. Those passionate about the original Recall aren't going to find enough to praise in the new one that they wouldn't be better off staying home and watching Aaaanod and Sharon Stone (then a fresh new face in Hollywood).  The original Philip K. Dick story was called "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale."  As movies these days are anything but wholesale, they can keep these memories to themselves.

Searching for Sugar Man

If you really want to see something new this weekend, maybe an inspiring indie documentary is just the thing...

Sometimes a movie is worth taking a driving trip to support. The new documentary Searching for Sugar Man won a Special Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year's Sundance. It is a wonderfully joyful odyssey.
This real-life story is of two South African fans of recording artist and singer/songwriter Rodriguez, who search for answers about the life and death of one of their favorite lost talents.

The musician Rodriguez is utterly obscure in the United States (one producer jokingly said he figured they sold six copies of his first record in this country).  His life and career is filled with mystery. In 1970, his first record "Cold Fact" was released and went nowhere, plunging the artist back into musical obscurity stateside. 

However, a bootleg copy somehow found its way to South Africa. There, it become a phenomenal success, where its anti-establishment message became an anthemic soundtrack for a generation of people suppressed by apartheid.  While no one knew what had happened to Rodriguez after several utterly unsuccessful U.S. releases, rumors were he had committed a gruesome form of suicide, setting himself ablaze onstage. 

The two fans get to the bottom of what happened to Rodriguez, with huge surprises and life-changing experiences along the way. The artist himself, in pictures and footage, proves to be enigmatic enough to explain the decades-long search for answers about him. 

Someone is quoted as saying in the film: "Home is acceptance."  This movie is part cautionary tale, part celebration of music as catalyst for social change. It is also very much about acceptance, about impressively grounded wisdom and a joy that comes and shines from within, no matter what occurs with outside forces.  

It is one of those stories that will be labeled a "feel-good movie" when it reaches Netflix, but that hardly does it justice. With so many albeit important documentaries bringing you to the brink of tears as it shows you the dark side of so many aspects of humanity, this one reminds you that anything is possible, and that even as wonderful things happen every day, some stories show you the best of what life can bring, from the smallest everyday moments to the most exalted life-changing events. 

It isn't just for musicians or music lovers, but as Cinema Siren and Siren Spouse are both musicians, it proved to be a particularly captivating 85 minutes. You who just want to see a great story? Get in the car. It is a deeply inspiring movie filled with hope. How far is that worth driving for?  

Playing at Loews Shirlington and Bethesda Row Cinema. For more information about Sixto Rodriguez, check out this link: http://www.ticketfly.com/event/136621/

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About this column: Leslie Combemale, "Cinema Siren," is a movie lover and aficionado in Northern Virginia. Alongside Michael Barry, she owns ArtInsights, an animation and film art gallery in Reston Town Center. She has a background in film and art history. She often is invited to present at conventions such as the San Diego Comic Con, where she has been a panelist for The Art of the Hollywood Movie Poster and the Harry Potter Fandom discussion. Visit her gallery website at www.artinsights.com and see more of her reviews and interviews on www.artinsightsmagazine.com.

Ray Hanania August 04, 2012 at 10:45 AM
People in the movie industry, or in this case close-to-the-movie industry, never like anything that they didn't make. They're much like the people in journalism who trash the superbly phenomenal HBO TV Series The Newsroom. Total Recall in 1990 was one of the best SciFi movies made back then and there is no doubt that with today's new technologies, the remake is even better. Combemale should have critiqued the obvious lack of creativity in the movie industry. The absence of ingenius scripts. Very little that is new and inspires people to think. Total Recall is successful because it follows the safe pattern of making movies that have proven to already be successful. The remake is no different. But it's the movie industry and the shallow people in it who are disappointing society. I want action and sparkle that pushes our technology advances beyond the limits. I'm waiting for the iPad of movies and the industry has failed us. In that failure, they always trash the best. Total Recall is far better than Batman and one of the best films out today. But things could be so much better and that is a lament worth lamenting.
Matt August 04, 2012 at 11:11 AM
The original Total Recall hasnt aged well. It feels padded out and cartoony. Not to mention a bad performance by Schwarzennegger. The special effects don't hold up either except for the Bottin created fat lady suit. Overall the movie comes off as cornball now.
Brett Martin August 04, 2012 at 01:39 PM
This is how I viewed it. http://tucker.patch.com/articles/total-recall-is-a-total-remake-b26b7fab#video-10906126

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