Total Recall (2012) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Total Recall (2012) Directed by Len Wiseman. With Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel and Bryan Cranston.

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Love it or loathe it, the one thing about Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall was that it was memorable. Sure, we all know that Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t a particularly good actor, but his charisma, combined with Verhoeven’s inventive ideas and style, made their 1990 release a genuinely exciting, sexy, funny and quite subversive ride, by typical Hollywood standards.

Fast-forward 22yrs, and here we are, remake time. Len Wiseman, the writer/director of the much maligned Underworld series, is served the impossible task of reshaping Verhoeven’s ‘R’ rated vision, into something that will play well to a modern ’12′ certificate audience. On the surface level, you have to concede that there are mini success’ dotted about. One of the most satisfying aspects of any science fiction experience, is revelling in the inventiveness of visions of the future, and in fairness, there are plenty of fascinating enhancements of our own, current technology to enjoy. Where the films falls down, is in nearly every other area. For starters, it isn’t as good as the Verhoeven version. Not even nearly.

As with his Underworld films, Wiseman opts for a similar, darkly lit tone, with lots of heavy tech, robotics and machinery, but with scant little in the way of humour. The films it tries to emulate the most, in terms of look, are perhaps, the gritty tone of Steven Speilberg’s Minority Report, with a little rain-swept Blade Runner for good measure. Good taste, you might say, sadly, it’s just packaging.

Colin Farrell plays the role of Douglas Quaid, previously occupied by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Although Farrell is clearly a better actor, the script doesn’t afford him much in the way of charisma, leaving his character dull, and a poor second best to that of Arnie. Wiseman attempts to keep aficionados of the Verhoeven version happy, by inserting small homages to the 1990 film here and there – the triple breasted mutant, the large lady going through border control – but all it serves to achieve, is to remind us what a better film the original was. Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston steps into the Ronny Cox role as the central villain, Cohaagen, whose character we don’t properly meet until the final act. The problem with this casting, is that we have become so accustomed (those of us who’ve enjoyed him as Walter White) to rooting for him as the good/bad guy, that his presence in the film, immediately brings a sense of character that makes him unintentionally appealing. Although we enjoyed a larger than life Ronny Cox and his side-kick Micheal Ironside, in the original Total Recall, this was never a problem.

Total Recall 2012 is certainly slick. It’s professionally shot, with good digital effects and an understated, modern soundtrack. At times, it looks like an Underworld film, even more so when an all-action Kate Beckinsale is high-kicking her way through scenes, leaving mayhem in her wake. The overriding problem that it has, is that while it’s passable sci-fi fun for now, there exists another version of this story that tells it in a much more entertaining way. Get your ass to that version.  3/5

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Thor: The Dark World (2013) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Thor: The Dark World (2013) Directed Alan Taylor. With Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston, Christopher Eccleston and Idris Elba.

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In the wake of Joss Whedon’s ground-breaking superhero team-up, Avengers Assemble, the universe of characters and situations belonging to the Marvel sphere, are beginning to feel fittingly expansive. Kenneth Branagh vacates the directors chair for this addition to the Thor series, and is replaced by Alan Taylor, a veteran of scaled up television series’, such as HBO’s Game of Thrones.

An Anthony Hopkins narrated prologue kicks proceedings off, introducing and enticing us with the lurking threat to come, embodied by an unrecognisable Christopher Eccleston, as leader of the sinister Dark Elves, Malekith. As has come to be expected, the grandeur and spectacle are fully intact, as is, thankfully, the series’ sense of humour. One of the pleasing aspects of Branagh and Whedon’s usage of the Thor character, was their ability to splice gags between the potential pomposity of the character, that with a lesser wit, might have otherwise prevailed. Chris Hemsworth is again a sturdy lead in the title role, once more bickering and bantering with his ill-disciplined brother, Loki, played with usual gleeful relish by the always great, Tom Hiddleston.

One of the failings of the previous film, was that it readily squandered Natalie Portman as Thor’s love interest, Jane Foster. The script attempts to address that problem by giving Portman more to do this time around, indeed making her character a central part of the main thrust of the plot. Despite this, her character still feels mildly redundant, not particularly sparking much between herself and Thor, and serving as more the straight-woman for the likes of Chris O’ Dowd (yes, him) and Kat Dennings to bounce jokes off.

In all though, the film provides enough spectacle to satisfy the appetite of those hungry for more of the same. Essentially a sequel to two films, it does a great job of extending the Marvel Universe further out into space, while constantly building and referencing things we’ve learned from the earlier films. There’s nothing terribly Earth shattering going on here, but it is nearly always entertaining, and reinforces a crucial sense of consistency to this intricately colossal Marvel business model. 3.5/5

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Elysium (2013) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Elysium (2013) Directed by Neill Blomkamp. With Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga and William Fichtner.

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Released to the sound of universal critical acclaim, District 9 showcased what an exciting talent South African film maker, Neill Blomkamp is. It’s understandable then, that levels of expectation were high for Elysium, Blomkamp’s second foray into science fiction.

Los Angeles. The year, 2154. We’re introduced to a dying, overpopulated Earth. Matt Damon stars as Max, a blue-collar guy with distant dreams of one day, leaving home, to live aboard Elysium – a giant, wheel-like space station orbiting the earth’s atmosphere – a place inhabited only by the wealthy and privileged, where disease has been wiped out and mankind co-exists in peace and harmony.

Though the action in District 9 was brilliant, in itself, Blomkamp’s first film had so much more to it. Here, the action is front-loaded, disappointingly overpowering the finer points of the intriguing concept. What’s more, is that the story never attempts to surprise us. The same can be said of the characters. From Alice Braga’s Frey, desperate to smuggle her daughter into Elysium to cure her terminal illness (yawn), to Jodie Foster’s wicked, but muted Delacourt, the screenplay doesn’t allow for much off the ‘beaten track’ of your average, everyday thriller. It’s surprising, especially considering how inventive District 9 was, that Blomkamp should produce something this straight-laced.

Matt Damon brings some character, early in proceedings, but it’s not long before he’s shouting, running and gunning, which would have been perfectly okay, had there been a stronger backbone of a film to support it. Everyday life on Elysium itself, is skimmed over, as is any kind of political or social message/commentary the film could have delved into. The louder and more insistent the action becomes, the less invested we gradually feel.

In the end, the films biggest trick, is that it has less up its sleeve than you’d expect. The introduction promises a meaty, thought provoking experience. The final result is no more life enhancing than your average Jason Statham thriller. Frustratingly, it’s easy to see the bare bones of a great idea being missed. 3/5

 

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Stoker (2013) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Stoker (2013) Directed by Chan-wook Park. With Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman.

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Brutality and beauty are very often joined at the hip, which is exactly the case in South Korean director,  Chan-wook Park’s first English language film, Stoker. After the tragic death of her father, India (Mia Wasikowska) and her unstable mother (Nicole Kidman) are joined at their beautiful country home by India’s uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), a mysterious but personable man.

Chan-wook Park and his director of photography, Chung-hoon Chung, achieve a striking sense of otherworldly unevenness with a masterful and artistic look and tone, that remains focused to keep character and story, front and centre. Early on, it’s explained that India has a keen sense of hearing, which Park employs to quite brilliant effect by having us, the viewers, hear the film through her ears. It creates moments of subtle genius, borderline hypnotic to experience, adding a layer of depth to the characters and surroundings.

The three central performances are magnificent, gradually revealing themselves throughout the course of the film, to sometimes shocking effect. Increasingly erotically charged, amid a developing sense of madness, there’s always an expensive feel of taste and class, with sometimes savage, but beautiful observations on parenting and a sense of one’s own awareness.

If alive today, its not hard to imagine that Stoker is the sort of film that Alfred Hitchcock would have made. It’s bubbling with visual and aural tricks that suggest and entice the viewer. Its full of ideas, some of which are ambiguous enough to fuel debate well beyond the credits. A masterpiece. 5/5

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) Directed by Francis Lawrence. With Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stanley Tucci and Donald Sutherland.

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Despite a change of the guard in terms of director, this second film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian Hunger Games novels, plays surprisingly similar beats to its predecessor. I say this from the perspective of someone who hasn’t read the books, although halfway in, it’s hard to escape the feeling that we’ve been down this road before.

Thanks to the huge box office success of the first film, the huge cast return, headed up by Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen. It’s a welcome breath of fresh air that an actress as natural as Lawrence, has become such a massive action star. Once again, Lawrence is engaging and real in the central role, carrying over much of what made her stand-out so brilliantly in 2010′s, Winters Bone. As before, there’s a plus serving of dark satire, once again aimed at reality television and its manipulative hold on the masses, which makes for a combination of creepy and knowing black humour.

In a sense and much like the previous offering, its at its best when focusing on the controlling elements of the government and its insidious way of manufacturing an agenda, through the media. There’s a hint that we, the viewers, are being told off for investing so heavily in such things, in the real world. In that regard, the film sends a strikingly rebellious message. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Donald Sutherland make for a sinister double act, and there remains genuine unease around who Katniss is able to trust.

Aside from the strength of the performances, which all deliver, it’s disappointing to find so much similarity with the previous film, in terms of the overall narrative scope. The structure is so familiar, that it often feels like re-watching the first film. With many aspects worthy of praise, from the inventive visual effects to the eye catching costume design, there’s sometimes a feeling that we ought to be more invested. That said, with a finale that suggests a significant shift in tone for the next outing, we’re left on a semi-cliffhanger, that, while might not leave us starving for more, definitely keeps us peckish. 3.5/5

 

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Total Recall (1990) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Total Recall (1990) Directed by Paul Verhoeven. With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside, Rachel Ticotin and Ronny Cox.

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This loose adaptation of the Philip K. Dick story, ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’, is a violent, fun-packed science fiction roller-coaster, that takes the thrust of the central idea of memory implantations and mind wipes, sets action icon Arnold Schwarzenegger centre stage and has Robocop director, Paul Verhoeven, behind the camera. On paper, it looks an odd recipe, in reality, it works an absolute treat.

Mention of a Philip K. Dick screen conversion immediately brings to mind Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s seminal art-house head screw. Under producers Mario Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna though, Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall is entirely different beast. Straight off, the casting of Schwarzenegger hints at a much lighter tone. Verhoeven uses this to his advantage, infusing a real European feel into the DNA of the film, despite it being mostly populated by Canadian and US actors. Small tricks, like the bored ‘Rekall’ secretary who can alter the colour of her nail paint with the touch of a pen, or the prostitute with three breasts, a taxi ride in a ‘Johnny Cab’, all these elements and more, contribute to creating the idea of a world, leaving a lasting impression.

Aside from there being great ideas everywhere you look, the visual effects of Total Recall are a real treat. Rob Bottin, who famously oversaw the special effects for John Carpenter’s The Thing, delivers some suitably nightmarish creations, full of wit and invention that lock together perfectly with the look of the film. Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside, as the two central villains of the piece, bring a distinctly comedic edge with their frantic rantings, while Sharon Stone displays some of that pre Basic Instinct sex-appeal as Schwarzenegger’s wife, of sorts.

Although Paul Verhoeven openly admits that his relationship with science fiction was more of an accident, than any kind of career design, with RoboCop and Total Recall, (both now remade) his lasting influence on the genre has been felt far and wide. From Jerry Goldsmith’s memorable score, to the pulsating thrill of the action, and a charismatic display from Schwarzenegger, Total Recall is a memory to keep. 4.5/5

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Chronicle (2012) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Chronicle (2012) Directed by Josh Trank. With Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B Jordan and Michael Kelly.

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As the market gradually expands, producing a fresh take on the superhero genre is more and more, becoming a harder thing to achieve. We’ve seen many franchises remade, rebooted and re-imagined countless times now, but still, things continue to enlarge and splinter off. Where Chronicle succeeds, is that it takes two well-worn ideas, and cleverly fuses them together.

Ever since The Blair Witch Project proved that you can have your cake and eat it, in terms of a low budget film becoming a huge commercial success, the genre of documentary style, ‘found footage’ films, has explored many themes, mostly based in horror and nearly always to a background of ringing box office cash registers.

For Chronicle, director, Josh Trank is smart enough to recognise the potential for freshness amid so much familiarity. His film follows the day-to-day travails of Andrew (Dane DeHaan) as he sets about video-recording his life, which mostly consists of him being abused by his alcoholic father, as his gravely ill mother lays dying in her bed, or, being subjected to bullying at school. Then, at a party, Andrew and his friends discover something in some nearby woodland that gives them Superman-like powers.

After this, the tone completely changes. It goes from a dark, disturbing study of loneliness and the horrors of abuse, to Jackass with superpowers. It’s a welcome shift and provides some genuinely funny moments, as the teens experiment with their new found abilities, playing pranks on unsuspecting members of the public. It’s almost as if, with great power, comes the need to exhibit great irresponsibility. Then, the tone begins to shift again.

I won’t spoil the film by going any further, but suffice it to say, Chronicle is a clearly cut, three acts. At times, the finale is much more ambitious than you might expect, as the found-footage style brilliantly hands over to news coverage to describe the dramatic conclusion. As Andrew, DeHaan is excellent, convincingly playing the tortured soul who’s sudden gift of unlimited power is equal parts blessing and curse.

Like Cloverfield before it, Chronicle succeeds by taking something larger than life and stripping it down. Unlike many of the superheroes we see in popular culture, Andrew and his friends are real people, and their emotional baggage, or lack thereof, plays a huge role in determining their response to becoming all powerful. Widely accessible, heartbreaking and a huge amount of fun, Chronicle is only let down by it’s unimaginative title. 4/5

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