Saturday, August 11, 2012

Total Recall, Safety Not Guaranteed, Deep Blue Sea

Minor 'Recall'

No, I didn't think Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990) was particularly good--too cartoony, too ready to give away the joke that it's all really a dream--but it had two interesting scenes: the one where Dr. Edgemar (Roy Brocksmith) persuasively argues that Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is really experiencing implanted memories and that taking a pill will wake him up. It's the film's most Dickian moment, where the two possibilities--this is a dream / this is real life--are most perfectly knife-edge balanced. It helps that Roy Brocksmith personifies the facelessness of bureaucracy--his very blandness argues for the truth of his words.

The second Dickian moment comes towards the end, where Quaid asks Melina (Rachel Ticotin): "What if all this is a dream?" Melina's reply is by turns practical and human and wonderfully droll: "Well, then kiss me quick before you wake up." Everything in between is over-the-top in that exuberant yet decadent fashion Verhoeven perfected in his '90s Hollywood pictures, trash cinema with artistic aspirations (some would say pretensions): not especially memorable, but amusing.

Len Wiseman's remake can't even manage to be that (Verhoeven's "is he or isn't he?" moment is resolve when Quaid spots a drop of sweat trickling down Edgemar's temple (Why would he be nervous if he was telling the truth?); Wiseman's Quaid spots a cheesier teardrop on Melina's face (She loves him so it must be real)). At close to two hours' running time, it's one close call after another, with plenty of high-powered mayhem along the way, a sort of Crank on steroids with electrodes attached; five minutes of this and I was pretty much numbed out--how many scenes of Colin Farrell karate-chopping Kate Bosworth and vice-versa can you watch? Five? Ten? Fifteen? Then there's the other hundred and three minutes to sit through. 

Doesn't help that like another major Hollywood director whose name I won't mention, Wiseman's humor-impaired--a few Schwarzeneggerisms wouldn't have hurt ("Consider that a divorce"); Farell is a far more talented actor than Schwarzenegger but Wiseman seems to have sat on Farell's head for most of the picture (only half the actor's charisma is on display). Beckinsale as Quaid's wife performs competent martial arts, but is barely as sexy (or funny) as the original, played by Sharon Stone. 

Satisfaction guaranteed

Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed was inspired by an actual Backwoods Home Magazine ad, about a request for a time-traveling companion willing to bring his or her own weaponry (Trevorrow claims to still have a copy of the issue)--clever conceit, and I suppose if you aren't familiar with Doctor Who it would seem extraordinarily imaginative. What Trevorrow does bring to the table is an American indie feel, which includes no-budget production design and refreshingly unpolished line readings; that, and a 'is he or isn't he?' tension straight out of Miracle at 34th Street (for all the series' virtues you aren't really given a chance to question the Doctor's authenticity--once he starts pointing his sonic screwdriver about all doubts fly out the left ear).

Indie star Aubrey Plaza with her kewpie-doll looks and deadpan delivery is the main attraction as Darius, the Seattle magazine work intern assigned to investigate the ad. She's the shy nerd's idea of an unapproachable hot date, and there's something to her combination of spiky snark and hidden vulnerability that's hard to resist--but more interesting still is Jake M. Johnson's Kenneth, the star reporter whose ulterior motive for doing the story is to seek out and hopefully hook up with an old girlfriend of his who lives in that same small town. Johnson's a comedian, unafraid to make himself look like an egotistical jerk; at the same time he holds out for the same dreams about love and companionship that Darius and her time traveler do, only his side story has a more believable and ultimately more poignant trajectory.

Aquarium of pain

Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea, his adaptation of a 1952 Terence Rattigan play might be considered so mannered and  hermetically closed it's claustrophobic (it's shot mostly in sets and interiors all choked up with smoke--you can't help but gasp for  fresh air). It's the story of Hester (Rachel Weisz), who has left her husband Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale) for handsome RAF pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). A familiar storyline: woman feeling constricted by unsatisfying marriage runs out to have a passionate fling--only in the traumatically damaged, essentially selfish Freddie, she finds an even more extreme, less extricable sort of enslavement (the apartment she and Freddie shares feels like a cell for solitary confinement). 

You wonder how Davies, often glancing in his storytelling, can tell this tale of emotional devastation without betraying his sensibilities. Some details give a clue: the essentially two-set film (the apartment, the crowded pub where Hester and Freddie go for a drink); the contemplative pacing and camerawork (the camera gazing at the actors as if trying to suss out their innermost thoughts); even the song Davies plays at one point ("You Belong To Me"--denoting possession and possessiveness) all conspire to construct, detail after detail, a kind of confined crucible in which the heat and pressure of Rattigan's play can build. 

The camera homes in on Weisz and Hiddleston as they suffer, the same time Davies manages to aestheticize the camera's stare (there's an eerie underwater feel to that stare, as if we were peering into an aquarium tank, or formaldehyde jar). Not that Davies is distanced--you sense his sympathy for the characters--but that he seems to look at them unflinchingly through the amber-tinted lenses. 

The result is a breathtaking piece of work, one of the most beautiful and impassioned  (yet hushed, oblique) recent films I've ever seen. Beale, the ostensible villain, wins you over with his helpless decency. Hiddleston manages to make a thoroughly self-centered man--an overgrown emotional brat, in effect--fascinating and empathic; you like him despite (or perhaps because of) his flaws. Weisz owns the picture; her Hester runs the gamut from boredom to ecstasy to absolute abjection without the fetters once snapping open, and you can't help but respond to the sheer pathos of her circumstance. A great film.


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