One of cinema’s jiviest science fiction films, the original Total Recall of 1990 – imagining a future in which man is so cast down he must actually buy his happy memories and have them implanted – made its star Arnold Schwarzenegger (aged 43) an easy $10m and 15 per cent of the gross. Unquestionably a star, he sent an electric charge through the audience every time he made it clear he understood that this kind of film is little more than dance. And so his frowning confusion and spurts of bravado in Recall have never been more grandly funny. How we loved him. How easy it is to forget the charge that came off Arnie in his prime.
This unnecessary remake is too po-faced. Determined to strike a more serious note, Len Wiseman’s Total Recall even leads us to believe it is going to recreate some of the original film’s wackiest moments (the lady with the revolving/exploding head at customs?) only to swerve away at the last moment, as though distracted by the sheer variety of its own alternative ideas, or at least the ones it can outrageously swipe from other films (The Bourne Identity in particular).
Colin Farrell stars as “the greatest intelligence agent alive” (no pressure) who has had his memory erased and is living with Kate Beckinsale in what looks like a flat in London’s Barbican. He sits on spaceships on his way to another day working in a factory, intent on his own misery, reading Ian Fleming in vintage editions. “I will find you!” he says to Jessica Biel in a strange dream. “Innocent people will die!” she screams back. It was hard to hear given the toing and froing of the audience at the late-night, central London screening. People got up, left and returned, casually, without urgency or guilt, as though passing the time between trains: it clearly did not remotely thrill them.
Adapted from a story by Philip K. Dick, the original film has a “what does it mean to be human?” subject lurking in its fun edges. Here this takes a mawkish centre stage. “What is life but our chemical perception of it?” asks a minor character, like the ghastly blind date who bustles off only to return with yet another book of poetry at a party. “The past is the construct of the mind, but the heart wants to live in the present,” says poor Bill Nighy, playing a banal rebel leader in a Claus Von Stauffenberg trenchcoat. (Why so much rouge on Bill’s cheeks? He looks like Pris in Blade Runner.)
Dick’s neo-fascist preoccupations – if a manufactured memory feels like a real one, or a manufactured person can do just as good a job as a real one, why fight for the difference? – are fantastically sticky and gloomy, and he wrote really frightening heroes: men like crashed cars undergoing yet another paint-job that cannot hope to last long. But Farrell hasn’t these particular chops. He’s a (good) actor who needs to indulge in that wonderful trick of getting really close to the audience with a joke, charming us with his queasy morality and boundless dark humour. Without that he’s a shadow, and the film isn’t fully there.
A festival hit, and highly unusual, Berberian Sound Studio stars Toby Jones as a mild English sound engineer who travels to Italy to work on a B-movie about the Inquisition. All the action takes place in a darkened sound booth or studio, with Jones behind a pile of watermelons (slice into one with force and you get the sound of decapitation) or radishes (hair being pulled from a witch’s head) looking increasingly discombobulated as the production collapses thanks to the lechery of the director and the trashiness of the flick. A properly loony dread preoccupies the first hour but after a while, despite the many black laughs, it all begins to feel anticipatory: you never get to the point where you think this is it, or that the film has even truly begun.
Not that you ever want things to end. Hats off to the writing. Jones reads a letter from his aged mother back in Dorking largely on the subject of nesting chiff-chaffs, and asking “Good weather in Italy? I should think so.” I wonder if this letter is verbatim from something in director Peter Strickland’s possession, so perfectly of-its-time is the locution and grammar, and it strikes so touching a note you get the one real jolt of the movie: of complete love for home and outdoors, and everything non-cinema, and the terrifying inert quality of the fear that keeps us from removing ourselves from situations (or even films) we find intolerable. So often we don’t switch off. Jones longs to be free – truly he is in a sweat, his jowls flaccid from all the indignity – and yet he cannot help but impale himself on his own sense of duty.
Samsara is a “non-verbal, guided meditation” that takes us to look, dreamily, at bog-men in museums in Denmark and mummies in Egypt. Statues in the Vatican. Street scenes in Ghana. The tribes of the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, metro stations in Brazil, and go-go bars in Thailand ... At first, the emphasis is on the wonder of nature (unusual rock and ice formations) and the music sounds like something played to a group of yoga mums. But then, slowly, the preoccupation starts to sour.
We spend a lot of time in Chinese abattoirs, watching chickens and pigs being skinned and mass-produced dumplings being filled, or irons assembled. Why quite so many scenes of these poor, hustling Asians, subhuman in their white coats and hairnets? Other races are filmed in that very modern, slightly aggressive way that passes for verisimilitude: tribesmen and women standing shoulder to shoulder, stock-still looking defensively into the camera. And on they come. Children in shanty towns (very Constant Gardener) interrupted by great swathes of rippled desert (very English Patient). I’m certain that the desired effect was not to emerge depressed, but this had that effect. Far from basking in the endless bright imagery, I scurried for the shadowy foliage of the street, for a rest, and – bliss – conversation.
You don’t know which word to ponder deepest in the quirky title, The Myth of the American Sleepover, writes Nigel Andrews. Its tangle of dormant potentialities is like the lives of the half-formed characters – teenagers on the night before a new school term – in David Robert Mitchell’s moodily magical first feature. They live in the same Michigan suburb: the boy and girl who fall in love in a supermarket (trolleys that pass in the night); the boy told by twin girls that he must choose between them or lose both; the pierced girl, a punk Doris Day, who does an amateurish yet show-stopping, even heart-stopping, dance solo by a pool.
Mitchell’s dialogue is tersely poetic. “Have you ever breathed through another person before?” is a kiss-me line with a difference. When someone says, “Are you breaking up with me?”, the answer “Probably” could be parsed forever. None of the sweetly troubled love plots quite heals or seals itself, an uncertainty made incandescent by the unknown cast, the soundtrack’s rueful songs (“Right Band, Wrong Song”, “The Saddest Story Ever Told”) and James Laxton’s superb photography, which puts the elegiac lyricism into this midsummer night’s love tragicomedy.
A Few Best Men is a midsummer day’s Hangover rip-off. Australian director Stephan Elliott (Priscilla Queen of the Desert) follows four laddish loudmouths from London to Sydney where one is to marry a millionaire’s daughter. What follows, over one day in and around a country mansion, is bed, barf and beyond: skirt-chasing, throwing up and more, as the youths meet their match in coke-snorting prospective mother-in-law Olivia Newton-John (woe and waste). Assorted native pranksters prove that in this comedy the quality of mercy is not ’strine.
The witless UK horror spoof Cockneys vs Zombies is even worse. As the living dead move in on London’s East End, the plot climaxes with the siege of an old people’s home containing what seems the entire Variety Club of Great Britain. Richard Briers, Honor Blackman, Dudley Sutton – what were you or your agents thinking of?