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Column Fri Aug 03 2012

Total Recall, Killer Joe, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, The Queen of Versailles & Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry


Total Recall

Flashy, nice to look at, and completely devoid of any soul. But enough about my taste in women; let's talk about the latest adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," whose lead character is described more as a younger Woody Allen than Arnold Schwarzenegger or Colin Farrell. In this version of Total Recall, most of the earth has been reduced to an unbreathable wasteland, with colonies of humans living in the United Kingdom (mostly for rich folk) and Australia (filled with workers, who literally travel through the core of the earth to work in factories in the UK building an army's worth of robot police. What could they possibly be for?

Factory worker Douglas Quaid (Farrell) is bored with his life of being gainfully employed (albeit with no real advancement opportunities because he's from the wrong side of the planet) and married to Lori, an ugly hag of a woman played by Kate Beckinsale. As a result, he decides to take a little trip to the offices of Rekall, a company that injects you with false memories so you can live out adventures or fantasies of your choosing, providing that none of your fantasies request are things that are already happening in your life (if you have a beautiful mistress, you can't ask for another one; it could lead to you frying your brain). Douglas asks to be a secret agent, but just as the memories are going into his blood stream, the Rekall office is swarmed with police looking for Doug.

For about the first half of the film, we aren't 100 percent sure if what's happening to Doug is real or a part of his false memories since we don't actually see if the memory juice made it into his arm before the cops came in. The thing I found annoying about Total Recall is that only once in the whole film does anyone challenge whether the reality that Doug is experiencing is real or a product of the process gone out of control. Jessica Biel plays Melina, a resistance fighter who claims Doug (who finds a video he left himself saying his real name is Hauser) used to be one of the best intelligence gatherers in the government (led by Bryan Cranston's Cohaagen). But when he learned certain plans the government had in store for the colonies, he switched sides.

One of most amusing elements to Doug/Hauser's story is that his wife is a cop, who is put in charge of capturing him. They've actually only been married a couple of months, but they planted Hauser with false memories to make him think they'd been together for years. Confused? It actually makes sense when you're watching it. Beckinsale is one of the only players in the film who seems to be having fun and gets that this story is ridiculous. She doesn't overplay the part, but she clearly enjoys messing with Doug/Hauser's head by bouncing back and forth between caring wife and kicking his ass into submission.

Hauser's ultimate mission, we are told, is to deliver "kill codes" for all of the robot police, which imbedded in his head and can only be extracted by the head of the resistance, Matthias (Bill Nighy), so Hauser and Melina must locate him to deliver the contents of Hauser's brain. What could go wrong? I will admit that the production design and special effects in Total Recall are extremely impressive, from the futuristic architecture and modes of transportation to the everyday technology used by even the lowest classes in this new society.

This version of Total Recall is brought to us courtesy of Len Wiseman, director of the first two Underworld movies and Live Free or Die Hard. And like those other films, Total Recall gets most of the technique right without any humanity. If something warm makes its way into one of Wiseman's movies, it's because particular actors bring it with them, like Bruce Willis or, in this case, Colin Farrell. Wiseman just happens to be married to Kate Beckinsale, who, as I mentioned, is actually one of the best things in this movie, but not because she brings heart and soul to the film, but simply because there is something undeniably fun about watching a beautiful woman kick ass, especially when that ass belongs to Jessica Biel. Did I mention there are cat fights in this movie? And that the three-breasted prostitute makes her way over from the original movie? Oh yes.

But as much as I often dig Farrell as an actor, his work in most of his bigger-budget action films falls short — not because he's a bad actor, but because he's almost too good and subtle a player to pull off the broad strokes of a movie like this. He seems in over his head. But Total Recall doesn't fail because of Farrell; it dies a horrible death because the final 20 minutes or so are ridiculous and feel like 17 rewrites were done. Not to give any of the wonderful surprises away, but it changes direction abruptly and without reason. If you keep changing the stakes, it's difficult to care if they are high or low. And in the the film's final act, I stopped caring.

I don't deem Total Recall a total failure. There are some impressive visual elements to the movie, for sure. But the rest left me cold. And even in a science-fiction action movie, I need some humanity. This is a closer call than you might think, but still a failure. That being said, if all you care about is a few bouts of high-energy action and pretty people in the leads, you could do worse.

Killer Joe

Here's an idea. Let's review this movie without reviewing the controversy surrounding it. Here's all you need to know: Killer Joe received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, and right or wrong, that's the fact of the matter. If you're 17 or older, you can go see this movie if it's playing near you, so shut the fuck up. If you're under 17, you'll have a hundred ways to watch this movie in a couple of months, so you shut up too. If you think the rating is outrageous, make sure everyone you know sees the movie, which happens to be one of my favorites of the year so far. The more popular an NC-17 movie is, the less the rating itself will be seen as a hindrance. Let's mainstream this thing, people, and you can feel good about supporting a powerful and severely disturbing film in the process.

Based the early-1990s play by Tracy Letts (a Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member, who also wrote the screen adaptation), Killer Joe finds Letts re-teaming with director William Friedkin after the 2006 film Bug. The pair collaborate to tell a Gothic Southern horror story involving the rather despicable Smith family of Dallas. The first thing that strikes you about the movie is that there's no easy entry point. As an audience, we tend to gravitate to the nicest person in a story, but such a person simply doesn't exist in Killer Joe. The best you can hope for is that this pack of back-stabbing idiots doesn't end up killing each other by the end.

Emile Hirsch plays son Chris, who is in desperate need of money and discovers that his never-seen mother has a substantial insurance policy that pays out to Chris's sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Chris enlists his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) to help with a plan that involves hiring "Killer" Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a professional killer who also happens to be a police officer. His price for killing the mother is non-negotiable, but since the Smiths don't have the money up front, they promise to pay him after the job is done from the insurance money. He agrees but only if the family puts up Dottie is collateral. What this means exactly is unclear, but we soon found out Joe wants to spend a lot of time with young Dottie in hopes of seducing her.

The movie is front-loaded with almost unbearable tension as things go from wrong to wronger as the plot unfolds. Allegiances fall apart, lies are told, and murders are committed. Killer Joe is a series of continuous sinking feelings, but at its core is a riveting, essential performance by McConaughey who commands silence and respect when he walks in the room, he's the ultimate seducer of women, and he's a scary son of a bitch when someone crosses him, a truth that is evidenced in a horrific final moment in the Smith's kitchen. If you've heard about the scene I'm talking about, it's not as bad as you think; if you haven't heard about it, it's worse than you can imagine. Hah! Either way, you can't help but be impressed with McConaughey's coiled aggression ready to spring unpredictably. Since last year's The Lincoln Lawyer, I have been so impressed with his long-suppressed skills as an actor in such works as Magic Mike and Bernie, and I'm definitely looking forward to what he has to offer in Lee Daniels' The Paperboy and Jeff Nichols' Mud before year's end.

His co-stars aren't too shabby either, especially Thomas Haden Church playing a less gregarious and sure-footed character than he usually does. Ansel is weak man, who is easily talked into doing stupid things against his better judgement. Hirsch is also good as the short-tempered son who lets his emotions guide him rather than his brain. Gershon is fearless as the conniving matriarch, always looking for an angle to better her position in this conspiracy. I'm never really been that impressed with Juno Temple as a performer; her little girl sex appeal always felt forced in other works, but here, she nails it in a surprisingly layered performance as perhaps the only character in the film that actually does some growing up during the course of the story.

Some may say that Killer Joe is not a pleasant movie, but I found myself laughing quite a bit as some of the pitch-black humor and idiocy occupying the screen. There's a great deal to get caught up in, and even if you're disgusted by some of the behavior and attitude on display, there's no possible way you can turn away. The film succeeds because it keeps you guessing what will happen next, and often shocks you when you find out if you were right. The film opens at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Killer Joe writer Tracy Letts.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

I'll admit, the Wimpy Kid movies (based on the book series by Jeff Kinney) are kind of charming and funny. The main difference between Dog Days and the first two is that our storyteller, Greg (Zachary Gordon, who is starting to show signs of aging out of this character), is not telling us his adventures in school; he's telling us about getting into trouble during summer vacation with his buddy Rowley (Robert Capron).

Greg's primary wish is to spend some quality time with a girl he likes from school, Holly (Peyton List, who played a young Kate Hudson in Something Borrowed and a young Katherine Heigl in 27 Dresses). When he finds out that Holly's family goes to the same country club as Rowley, he finds a way to sneak in to spend some time with her. Let the hijinks commence.

Still along for the ride are Greg's older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick), dad (Steve Zahn) and mom (Rachael Harris). This particular installment in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series in heavy on lessons about Greg gaining more responsibilities, so Zahn in particular gets a lot of screentime as something more than just a background player. When Greg screws up, dad takes it pretty hard, which in turn makes Greg feel horrible for letting his dad down. There are a couple of really nice moments with father and son that I thought elevated the film above the usual kids fare.

Not that Dog Days isn't filled to the brim with the standard-issue broad jokes, antics, and gross-out humor that kids will adore, but like the previous two films, there's a little something extra and believable about some of what happens in the film. The Heffley family dynamic always struck me as honest and sweet, even when the brothers are tormenting each other. If you've seen either of the previous Wimpy Kid movies, you know what to expect. No one is attempting to break new ground here, but if you want you children growing up with a more cultured form of entertainment than the stupid Ice Age movies, this is a good franchise to jump into.

The Queen of Versailles

There's a part of me that almost wishes the story of David and Jackie Siegel would be made into a feature film one day. I just want to see what magnificent actors the makers would select to play two of the most interesting, occasionally repulsive, human beings I've ever seen on screen. But if I were being honest, I don't think anyone could truly capture their combination of street smarts, business savvy, and utter devastation when they lose the keys to their self-made kingdom.

David Siegel was the head of the largest time-share company in the world. The man was a billionaire, and not surprisingly, he lived like one. And with his wife Jackie, they designed and began building what would have been the largest home in America, a 90,000-square-foot monstrosity inspired by Versailles. I believe the original intent of The Queen of Versailles filmmaker Lauren Greenfield was to capture these very rich individuals at their peak. David brags about helping George W. Bush win Florida against Al Gore and seems happy to talk about winning his beauty queen wife; he doesn't seem like the kind of man who loses.

And like many of the great documentaries, life changes the story. When the real estate bubble bursts, David's business goes into a tailspin and the Siegels must stop construction on their dream home. Before long, the cutbacks in the home begin in earnest, and David becomes a true bastard to his wife and their many spoiled children. On a certain level, Greenfield wants us to feel a little bit sorry for the Siegels. She followed them for two years after the crash, and he chronicle of their crumbling world is somewhat sad. At the same time, how much money does one family need? It's impossible not to feel somewhat smug about their downfall.

The film's biggest surprises all stem from Jackie, who grew up dirt poor, so she knows how to live with very little. The loss of their money seems to impact her less. As much as we'd like to peg her as a golddigger, she really does seem to exist by the rule that as long as you and your family are happy, all will be well. David doesn't agree, and watching him scramble to come up with cash to pay his employees and pay down his debt is exhausting. He pushes away his family, and an attempt by Jackie to throw their annual holiday party to bring everybody's spirits up is an embarrassment and costly.

I don't think whether you take pity on the Siegels or not is going to change your enjoyment of The Queen of Versailles, the perfect film for our times and perhaps a chronicle of the ultimate societal comeuppance. I think there are people in this movie you may end up liking despite yourself. Either way the film is fascinating stuff, and it opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

It's difficult to watch this extraordinary documentary about Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and not adjust your definition of what it means to "protest" something. When you live in a nation like China where the government can lock you away indefinitely without cause, to speak out against the way it handles such things as disaster relief or human rights is downright dangerous. And Ai Weiwei is perhaps the most dangerous man in the nation because he has mastered using Twitter and other social media to get his message and art out the rest of the world. He was hugely popular all over the world for both his creativity and his tenacity, and filmmaker Alison Klayman was granted a remarkable amount of access to both his personal and professional life.

We see Ai set up his latest exhibit in London, get a bit of history about his time in New York a couple decades earlier, and begin work on one of his greatest achievements: a new artists' studio. But after several run-ins with Chinese police, Ai is unexpectedly arrested, his studio bulldozed, and his blog shut down. And suddenly the documentarian becomes the subject as many news organizations find out she is making this movie and come to her as an expert on this missing dissident.

As much as I'd love to give Klayman all credit for building a certain level of suspense around Ai's activism and the government's reaction to it, Ai does a pretty solid job getting in his oppressors' faces and letting the tension simply arise from his day-to-day life. Ai's personal life is also on display, and it is discovered that he has a child with a woman other than his wife, and all parties involved seem to be OK with the arrangement because of who Ai is. Famous people can get away with murder; we all know this. Never Sorry portrays Ai Weiwei as a flawed man, but one who's spirit — at least temporarily — was broken just enough to keep him silent for a time. Your heart will break just a little watching this film, but it will also be fortified and perhaps invigorated by watching Ai work his magic with words and the internet. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Read my exclusive interview with Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry director Alison Klayman on Ain't It Cool News.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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