Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Total Recall, The Bourne Legacy, and Hope Springs

          Two of a Kind … and an Ace of Hearts
                         Review by Ken Burke      Total Recall  

The budget is big, the effects are spectacular, and the need for all that in hopes of some relevance to this remake is all too obvious when the original is still more impactful.

                                                                      The Bourne Legacy
Even though Matt Damon makes only a “ghost” appearance this movie tries to tie into franchise connection in a manner that’s admirable in its action but not much else.

                                                                       Hope Springs
Maybe it’s not yet interesting to younger viewers to see the real trials that go into keeping a marriage relevant but hopefully the superb acting will overcome any age gaps.

            Regarding my title for this review, I know that with card-game-related references two of a kind is really just one pair, which isn’t much of anything most of the time—and I can basically say that about the first two movies to be dissected here—but as a phrase “two of a kind” not only reads better but it conveys better the loud, well-produced, but essentially shallow experience of trying to conjure up allusions to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Matt Damon while not really providing the better product so we’ll probe into those situations shortly.  But while Hope Springs for me is a far better, more long-lasting theatre experience (and muzzle your assumptions right now that this comment might be a subtle orgasm joke because Hope Springs is a lot less of a sexagenarian sex comedy than the ads make it out to be) it’s also “of a kind” with the other two because they all deal with people who are not the person that they’re perceived to be—even by themselves—and therein lies the fascination, if any, for each of these stories.

            We’ll start with Total Recall in which Philip K. Dick’s (and speaking of sex jokes, get your giggles out of the way now; it’s sad that such a fascinating writer was saddled with such a juvenile-prodding-reptilian-level-of-the-brain name because it makes it so “hard”—see what I mean?—to make comments about his mesmerizing work without snickering) short story We Can Remember It for Your Wholesale (with a more fantastic, unnerving premise than either of the Total Recall films; no spoilers here, just please read it for yourself) is once again brought to life, as it was before in the fondly-remembered version directed by Paul Verhoeven in 1990.  Only this time it’s Len Wiseman directing Colin Farrell as the current Douglas Quaid/former Carl Hauser, a seemingly downtrodden factory worker who’s actually a highly-trained government agent who once infiltrated terrorist groups in his miserable future Earth before becoming sympathetic to the rebels, after which he was given a collection of false memories and a witness-protection-like fabricated life (echoes of the various versions of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner [1982/1992/2007]; nothing about most futuristic sci-fi movies leaves us with any real desire that reincarnation might exist to enable us to be reborn into these later days—except in the marvelous finale of the original Total Recall in which Mars is transformed into an hospitable planet instead of the harsh desert that we [that is, me and about 3 other attendees; you won’t find much reference to Andrew Stanton’s box-office bust at Disneyland] visited in John Carter [see my March 17, 2012 review in this blog if you like]).  This sad tale of a chemical-warfare-decimated Earth in the late 21st century (how encouraging is that for the welfare of your grandchildren?), where there are only two habitable areas left—the United Federation of Britain, taking in the current Isles and what appears to be most of western Europe, and Australia, transformed into The Colony (somehow essentially ruled by the UFB, getting us back to 19th century British Empire status; I guess James Bond trumps Jason Bourne after all), connected by a massive “subway” technology that cuts right through the Earth’s molten core (now there’s a train with some wicked insulation, as well as speed that would be impressive to the Flash as the cross-planet trip takes only a few minutes, hours shorter than the current fast-rail run between London and Paris)—is intended, I guess, to not only try to cash in on yet another unneeded remake of an iconic pop-culture media product but also to seem aligned with concerns over environmental destruction, authoritarian governments, and the increasing dangers of overpopulation (buildings in this future climb upward and link together like crazy architectural Legos webs as the lack of space requires going the only available direction: up).

            The remake motive is reasonable enough as on-screen technology continues to improve, resulting in a number of hand-to-hand combat, chase, and destruction scenes that are amazing to watch and clearly more visually sophisticated that what was possible 22 years ago (even just the constantly shifting camera within practically every shot adds further energy to a narrative already in perpetual motion).  However, that’s about all I have to recommend this sense-assaultive story, despite game efforts by Farrell and company to keep us interested.  Most of the concept of the original film survives (except the most dramatic aspect, the link between Earth and Mars, which is now the mere intercontinental “jaunt” done in the device known as The Fall), with Quaid’s fake wife/assassin Lori now Kate Beckinsale rather than Sharon Stone and his true compatriot/lover Melina now Jessica Biel rather than Rachel Ticotin.  Certainly the vicious encounters between Doug and Lori would make great WWE main-event material, as would the latter battles between Lori and Melina—if nothing else, Lori is one dedicated government agent, determined to terminate these rebels through any means necessary.  Further, there are clever details such as President Obama’s face on future currency (A prediction?  I don’t think there are any 1-term Pres faces on our current cash.) and enticing technological possibilities, such as having telephones implanted in your hand so that you can race around London, Sydney (or wherever, Quaid’s home city in The Colony is called Fremont but maybe it was settled by refugees from my area’s East Bay where the city of the same name [actually, that is the director’s hometown] is currently home to many South Asian transplants; in the future they may have to go back that direction with a lot of the rest of us following right behind) without losing your cell while hurtling in many directions at once.  Admittedly, this movie also hurtles you in several directions at such a frantic pace and within such intriguing environments that it’s always fun to watch, but given that there are few surprises as to what’s coming next and no compelling reason beyond anticipated box-office riches (which haven’t materialized, as the roughly $44 million current domestic take is only about 1/3 of the budget) as to why a largely-unchanged structure has been constructed (unlike the much more compelling True Grit [Ethan and Joel Coen, 2010] redux, for example), I left the theatre feeling somewhat like The Colony residents after the destruction of The Fall left them isolated but enthused to determine their own fates: I endured it for as long as I had to, now let me get back to something more productive.

            That “something more productive,” however, doesn’t fully include Tony Gilroy’s The Bourne Legacy because like the new Total Recall this is more about allusions and recycling than it is about something that truly adds to the cinematic legacy that it sets out to conjure up (even to the distracting point of a report of a Jason Bourne sighting in Manhattan [with a photo of but no appearance by Damon—sort of like Ed Wood finishing Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959) by more or less shooting around Bela Lugosi’s character after the actor died] and brief appearances by previous Bourne characters played by Albert Finney, David Strathairn, and Joan Allen as the continuing scandal of the revealed secret operation Treadstone continues to play out in Congress and the media).  Jeremy Renner does a fine job as yet another highly-trained, mind-and-body-drug-enhanced off-the-books superspy, Aaron Cross, and Rachel Weisz makes a solid impression as his at-first-unwilling-then-steadily-entangled accomplice-lover, Dr. Marta Shearing—with Edward Norton equally effective as Retired USAF Col. Eric Byer, just as determined in this movie to eradicate all traces of the pumped-up super “spooks” from the clandestine units that produced Bourne, Cross, and a few others as was “Lori Quaid” determined to snuff out “Douglas Quaid” in Total Recall, not only because what Cross knows about “special ops” that would be deadly for the public perception of leaders entrusted with “homeland security” in a fragile society but also because as a highly-developed human weapon he’s exactly what you don’t want as part of the active opposition.  In The Bourne Legacy Cross wouldn’t necessarily be such a fearsome outlaw if he were not being unjustly hunted by the very organization that created him, but when they decide that he must be removed, along with all traces of his “super-sized” origins—which, collaterally include the research lab of Dr. Shearing and her innocent-scientist contributions to the spy experiment (but as Cross asks her, “What did you think you were developing us for?” in terms of how truly innocent she is in the larger concept here; even one of the head “spooks” admits that these agents are “morally indefensible and absolutely necessary” [echoes of Jack Nicholson snarling “You can’t handle the truth!” from Rob Reiner’s 1992 A Few Good Men] so we’ll have to decide for ourselves who’s complicit in what, both on- and off-screen)—that turns him into a defensive dynamo who eludes, kills, or thwarts everything in his way.  But, again, we’ve seen this all before with Bourne, in 3 films not just the 1 Total Recall original, so except for referencing the previous series, once again demonstrating some amazingly skillful acrobatic moves by the stars and their stuntpeople, and keeping the concept of the sympathetic-but-dangerous rogue spy (or, as we come to understand, his former handlers are the real rogues, unwilling to acknowledge the calamity they are responsible for or rationalizing it away in the name of “national security” while attempting no reclamation/rehabilitation of their now-liberated “lab rats”) alive so that the Bourne franchise either has a new face in Renner for some actual plot development in the future or at least the idea has been kept warm if Damon ever decides to get active again as the original renegade assassin on the run.

            Don’t get me wrong; I’d probably be willing to watch Renner, Weisz, Norton, and some others in this cast in most anything they do (although I should be careful about how generous I’m being with my time because Renner’s got quite a non-compelling résumé prior to The Hurt Locker [Kathryn Bigelow, 2008] and the same for Weisz prior to The Mummy [Stephen Sommers, 1999] that I’d have to catch up with; I’d be in better shape with Norton), but I’d prefer that they be doing something with more substance than this (honestly, I came into the theatre tired and dozed a bit during the first half hour as I just couldn’t get into it; I did wake up when they blew up the “safe” house in Alaska, though, and managed to stay alert enough after that).   However, there is one compelling aspect to this story beyond the effective special-effects and explosion extravaganzas that light up the screen every few minutes: the driving force that keeps Cross going is not just the need to protect his life from the many other agents who are trying to snuff it out (in any 1-on-1, maybe up to 10-on-1 confrontation he could probably take anybody who didn’t fire a bazooka at him from over 50 feet away while his back is turned) but also to maintain the enhanced mental capacity that his drug regiment has imparted because without it he’d drop back to this below-acceptable-for-military-service I.Q. (a scary thought, given that according to a source I read that would only be about 50) making him dysfunctional for many aspects of life, especially the need to defend himself against determined killers.  This reminds me of the very touching tale of Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes, short story published in 1959, novel in 1966) in which the title-named mouse and Charlie, a low-I.Q. janitor, both undergo an experiment that leads to high intelligence; tragically, the “brain boost” is only temporary for both subjects, as Algernon dies and Charlie regresses.  This story has its own life in cinematic adaptations including a 1961 TV drama, “The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon” (The United States Steel Hour, Season 8, Episode 13), and a 1968 film, Charly (Ralph Nelson, 1968), both starring Cliff Robertson (won the Best Actor Oscar for the 1968 version), and another TV movie, Flowers for Algernon (Jeff Bleckner, 2000), starring Matthew Modine.  Admittedly, this is only a quick source of tension for our protagonist in The Bourne Legacy, because most of the time he can’t sit around being reflective when he’s under constant physical attack, but the situation gives considerable depth to one aspect of this story (as does the realization that just about anyone can be watched anywhere as our escaping heroes are followed by local and satellite camera wherever they attempt to go) as compared to the mindless-in-a-different-way non-stop action in the Total Recall remake. 

            Still, both films are essentially nothing more than attempts to lure audiences back to familiar territory, with little of the heft associated with their originals.  (Even though I admit that the Bourne trilogy itself is more superficial than the Robert Ludlam novels [some of the few books I’ve read prior to their adaptation to movies]—which don’t bear all that much similarity to the movies once the premise of the story is set, much like how many of the Ian Fleming James Bond novels provide little more than titles for the same-named films—but that’s usually the case with taking something that comprised several hundred pages of single-spaced text in print and then transforming it into a medium where the written “blueprint” is about 120 pages with lots of white space around the dialogue and scene descriptions; I doubt that there are many adaptation situations where fans of the original can fully embrace what results in the transformation, although I’m quite satisfied with how Francis Ford Coppola restructured Mario Puzo’s The Godfather [1972], even though lots of changes had to be made, and how Kenneth Branagh captured Shakespeare’s Hamlet [1996], although he had the advantage of using the entire original, just reset in a 19th century court that feels a bit more like Russia than Denmark.)  One more positive characteristic that Total Recall and The Bourne Legacy share, with each other and with the last one in this review, is the intriguing concept of not being who you think you are, either because of externally-implanted memories as with “Douglas Quaid,” or not being the self that you fear returning to (or even the self you were bred to be), in regard to both the true nature and the once-accepted/praised skills of “lethal weapon” Aaron Cross.  In the case of Hope Springs, however, the characters know who they have become, it’s just that’s not who they set out to be 31 years ago when they were young, newly in love, and not set into the patterns that will come to slowly terrify and restrict them.

            I’ve chosen to begin with this photo from Hope Springs because it’s the only one I could find that more accurately represents the content and tone of the film, rather than others which show the main characters in smiling or laughing modes, seemingly verifying the silly romantic-comedy attitude presented in previews (such as my second citation for this film in the listed links below) and advertising.  I guess the marketing gurus were concerned that if potential viewers understood that this is mostly a very serious look at how difficult it can be to keep a marriage vital and sexually active after 31 years then the only audience they’d get would be those who get discounts with their AARP cards and the vans full of day-travelers from local assisted-living communities.  So, be clear concerning Hope Springs (clearer than I am about the fictional Maine location for the story, which is either in the seaside town of Hope Springs or Great Hope Springs [ambiguous shot of a town map on the side of a building sets up more confusion than clarity as to whether that’s the full town name or an indication of  the surrounding area of the small suburban location]) that it’s about the unintended sad inertia which can slowly poison even the formerly happiest of marriages, as the routine of jobs, children leaving the nest to start families of their own, separate interests and activities erode what was once more spontaneous, connected, and joyful instead of expected, tolerated, and seemingly secure.  As is well-detailed in the second clip I note below in conjunction with this film (a lengthy review by AP’s Christy Lemire and Alonso Duralde from and Linoleum Knife podcast), you don’t have to be of an advanced age or have been married for decades to appreciate Hope Springs, but as someone who connects on both of those counts I’ll say that such attributes certainly add to a full appreciation blossoming into deep respect and enjoyment about a topic that normally gets only the silly aren’t-old-people-cute-when-they-still-try-to-have-sex treatment so easily misrepresented in Hope’s promos.  True, David Frankel’s film does focus a lot of energy on the quiet tragedy of Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) sleeping separately, entrenching her unfulfilled needs after 5 long intercourse-free years (they live in the Midwest, emblematic of an interpersonal drought they've endured even longer than the one currently plaguing the farmers in their area) and his disregard of any definition of successful marriage that can’t be measured in time spent (as if it’s a prison sentence with better meals and home furnishings), but while much of the surface action of the film is on what has kept them apart and how difficult it is for them to find strategies to re-link their bodies as well as their committed but too-calm hearts the deeper message is about how their growing distance comes ultimately from their inability to express anything relevant to each other that transcends their workdays (his as a partner in an accounting firm, hers as a saleswoman in a mall clothing store), their upcoming meals, and his soulless but constant “passion” for golf.

            Kay finally gets up the courage to book them a week at a couples’ retreat run by Dr. Bernard Feld (Steve Carell, playing his role in a completely serious, heartfelt manner focused on pushing his clients out of their self-imposed shells rather than ever taking command of a scene—the command is done much more forcefully by both Jones’ constant determination to deny that he even needs to be in the “shrink’s” office and Streep’s alternately nervous and exasperated attempts to break through her husband’s long-accepted certainty that what he thinks is always the best choice and what he feels doesn’t need to be shared with strangers, even though so much of his intimacy with his wife has been guarded and modulated that she’s on the verge of becoming a stranger to him as well).  Unlike the slam-bang action of the two movies reviewed above, this is a slow-moving encounter (in a good way) that refuses to present the expected breakthroughs during the forced week of personal confrontation that our principals must face singularly and dually.  All the while, Dr. Feld is patient, sincere, and dedicated to actually achieving something meaningful with his restrained clients (Arnold’s reluctance for much of the time to even admit that there’s any value in the retreat, Kay’s reluctance to push herself beyond her very conventional limits to even try something sexual that might be considered scandalous in the Omaha heartland that they call home, although I’m sure that more goes on behind closed doors in Nebraska and neighboring environs than is discussed at church socials ... I was in Nebraska once, well, never mind).  Just when you think that it’s all come together, after determined questioning by Dr. Feld, comically-clumsy attempts to break through the barriers through exercises about close contact and bananas, and what seems to be the perfect ice-breaking dinner and cozy inn night at a more upscale hotel than Arnold’s preferred EconoLodge, it all breaks down again leaving our hopeful but wounded couple on the verge of an actual breakup, despite all of those invested years.

            The conclusion, in which the walls finally do come down, might seem a bit forced, as Arnold makes his sincere move just at the point that Kay has packed a bag for departure from home and the clock is ticking for a standard-length Hollywood film to wrap it up for the next showing, followed by a joyously giddy vows-reaffirmation ceremony a year later shown during the credits so that all of the previous tension seems easily resolved in the last 10 minutes of the film, but that’s the only flaw I find with this very touching, marvelously acted encounter of truly remarkable talent making very ordinary characters take on the essential substance of functional relationships, no matter what age or social significance the partners might represent.  From the very beginning of the screening, when you note that MGM is one of the releasing studios, conjuring up their fabulous but faded heritage (at least until things get serious again next November when their new James Bond thriller Skyfall [Sam Mendes] roars into action), to the first scene where Kay comes into Arnold’s bedroom hopeful that maybe tonight might finally turn around their estrangement but he merely says, “What are you doin’?” then realizes her intentions and trails off with “Oh, well, I don’t … (mumble, mumble),” you can feel the weight that age has on both a body and a relationship, how so much goes unsaid because he assumes there’s no need to say it and she assumes that there’s no point in defying the institutionalized status quo, even when their own adult kids seem disappointed with their lack of anything that could hint how they became parents in the first place.  What they experience as they progress, with him as gruff personified and her as scared determination personified, is what resonates effectively throughout their personal struggles that may seem so featherweight in relation to the huge crises that drive the other two stories under scrutiny in this review but ultimately are about the foundational links that hold society together and bring human beings fully into their needed personhood.  Like the action movies Total Recall and The Bourne Legacy, Hope Springs is also about characters who aren’t what they appear to be on the surface but this time it’s because they’ve built their own untrue surfaces, rather than having them imposed by some government agency.  No one set out to construct a life for Kay and Arnold so that they could become military weapons in a war against insurgents; they just allowed themselves to sink beneath their own hopes and vitality, slowly moving away from each other even within the confines of their spacious home. 

            It may not be as reasonable as the rest of the film that they could suddenly reconnect at the last minute to bring this melancholy tale back into the light of joy and mutual re-acceptance, but I’d rather see their finally-released reconnection than be left to wonder if a kind look or a soft touch will be enough to really start eroding all the inhibitions that have kept them apart for so long.  Maybe I just need the reassurance that they were able to pull strongly back from the brink to reaffirm to myself that I should never let my own marvelous marriage stagnate like that or lack the will to overcome the loss of vitality if it should ever happen.  (And I’ve already allowed the seeds of such problems to sprout a bit with putting so much time into my actual job and even this unofficial career of blathering on about someone else’s movies when Nina’s got things she’d like to share with me.  Bad dog!  Stop typing and go to bed with the everlasting love of your life! … although she’s already asleep tonight; damn my snail-pace writing ability!  But tomorrow brings new hope for productive time spent together.)  Hope Springs may be too slow and uneventful for everyone’s tastes—although I hope that at least those not naturally drawn to it could still appreciate the fabulous acting command that these established stars bring to this seemingly small story—but it helps us see that you don’t have to go ballistic on a Total Recall or Bourne Identity world which has given you choices that you never intended just to be able to reinvent yourself and realize the personal and connective potential that awaits you.  All of these cinematic experiences are about transcending the imposed or self-imposed personas that have kept all these main characters from understanding their true selves, but for me only Hope Springs (“eternal,” as Alexander Pope said in his An Essay on Man poem, 1734) presents this theme in a manner that I can make direct use of (it’s just been sooo long since I’ve been recruited by the CIA) with its lessons to push beyond your self-imposed boundaries and embrace the wonder that is you (and Nina, in my case).

            If you’d like to know more about Total Recall here are some suggested links:

for comparisons between the 1990 and current versions of Total Recall you can get details at and a short scene-by-scene comparison at

            If you’d like to know more about The Bourne Legacy here are some suggested links: (extensive production clips and cast interviews)

            If you’d like to know more about Hope Springs here are some suggested links: (I dumped on Christy Lemire before for what I perceived as her negatively-age-based comment on The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel so here’s my acknowledgement that she can be successfully open to a film intended for far beyond her demographic bracket)

            Title alert!  If you’re interested in Hope Springs but won’t get to it until it’s available on DVD be sure that you get this 2012 version, not the Mark Herman 2003 romantic “comedy” (not as funny as it “hope”s to be) starring Colin Firth as a love-devastated Englishman who comes to Hope, Vermont (although Mary Steenburgen’s character’s accent sounds more New Jersey than New England) looking to put his past and his (supposedly) ex-finance (Minnie Driver) behind him as he finds new “hope” with a local, lovable wacko (Heather Graham)—titles can’t be copyrighted so this is one of those instances of possible confusion over completely different plots, not a remake of an original.  I just watched this one and honestly can’t recommend it much (Firth does show talent for comedy, but you see that done better in the Bridget Jones’s Diary movies [Sharon Maguire, 2001; Beeban Kidron, 2004]).  Charles Webb wrote the book the older Hope Springs is based on, but all I can do is “hope” that the novelist of The Graduate accomplishes more with his original on the page than the adaptation does on the screen; however, if you want to know more a good starting place is that matter, don’t confuse either of these movies with Forest Whitaker’s 1998 Hope Floats where Sandra Bullock is a divorcee intrigued by a younger man [Harry Connick Jr.]; I have vague memories of this one being pretty good so if you want to explore it further you might start at

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