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Thrones & Empires – another movie mystery solved

The epic what now?

I was left more than a little baffled recently when I stumbled upon a stack of this filmic oddity at my local video shop. Well over a dozen DVD copies of a film I had never heard of with a cast many films would kill for lay stacked on the shelves. While it’s not unheard of for a film full of big stars to go under the radar and direct to DVD, I instantly smelled a rat. All of the rats. The text from the back of the DVD box only compounded my confusion and suspicion. I quote:

FROM ACADEMY AWARD-WINNING DIRECTOR GABRIEL AXEL

A SAGA, FILLED WITH INTRIGUE, DECEIT, MURDER AND VENGEANCE…

Fenge (Gabriel Byrne – The Usual Suspects) steals the throne of Jutland by killing his brother, King Hardvanael and marrying his widow (Helen Mirren – The Queen). Hardvanael’s son, Amled (Christian Bale – The Dark Knight Rises) feigns insanity, to avoid his own execution but Fenge doubts his condition and sends him to a Duke (Brian Cox – X-Men 2) in England to be murdered. Instead, the prince becomes a hero, marries an English rose (Kate Beckinsale – Underworld Awakening) and return to exact revenge on Fenge in a ferocious battle for the crown that is rightly his.

Featuring alongside Byrne, Mirren, Bale, Cox and Beckinsale is a star studded supporting cast including; Andy Serkis, Freddie Jones, Ewen Bremner, Tony Haygarth, Mark Willians, Tom Wilkinson, Saskia Wickham and Brian Glover.

Amled? OK, so I think it’s clear what we have here. This is All-Star Action Hamlet. And yet a brisk googling of the film brought up nothing but a bare Amazon sales page and an article about two hit HBO shows, Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire. Thrones. Empire. My how those rats began to smell.

While Gabriel Axel sounds like he has the name of a director of action schlock in the style of McG, Rob Zombie or Olivier Megaton, he is in fact a respected dramatic director best known for his charming Oscar-winning period drama Babette’s Feast (1987). A little wiki-ing revealed that the venerable Mr. Axel is, at present, an impressive 94 years old – a good age to still be alive, but an improbable one to be directing historical action movies.

Putting on my DVD Detective hat, I asked around, and with some help from across the internet and closer to home finally uncovered that Thrones & Empires is little more than a shamefully cynical repackaging of Axel’s 1994 “historical Hamlet” drama Prince of Jutland (aka Royal Deceit – as if it didn’t have enough titles already). The date of the film, among other things, does explain why Christian Bale looks barely back from the Empire of the Sun on the DVD box art (interestingly, the film is notable as Andy Serkis’s debut, so there you go).

Here’s the slightly hilarious trailer:

So now the question is, will I see it? Well, the DVD remains €10, and I think I was far more interested in it when I thought it was a sorry B-movie remake of Hamlet than a respected auteur’s late offering. Also, if I want to watch Hamlet without Shakespeare’s dialogue, I’d be better off watching The Lion King. Despite the fine cast (although its 85min run-time is baffling – the play uncut is 4hrs!), there’s just no way to overlook what a cynical release this is. The fact that the film was re-released with this title to coincide with the cinema release of The Dark Knight Rises and the rampant success of Game of Thrones is the worst thing I’ve seen since Disney repackaged Cinderella in a “Royal Edition” set last year to coincide with the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

There really is something rotten in the state of Denmark after all…

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Total Recall – An unmemorable remake

Colin Farrell as Doug ‘Dougie’ Quaid, aka Carl Hauser (aka Dougie Hauser?)

It’s hard to stifle a giggle as the lights go down for Total Recall when the name of the film’s production studio, Original Film, comes up on screen. Coming 22 years after the Paul Verhoeven-directed version, it’s hard to find much “original” about this Len Wiseman production, at least on the surface. It doesn’t help the filmmakers’ arguments that they insist the film is more closely based on the source material, Philip K. Dick’s short story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’; but really swathes of Total Recall 2012’s content comes from the 1990 film.

Wiseman, that packer of action who brought us the highly entertaining Live Free Or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0) and the remarkably successful Underworld series, has here steered into cinemas an action movie that builds on its predecessor only in terms of gloss, not in terms of depth or content.

Colin Farrell, on autopilot, stars as Doug Quaid, a worker at a robot factory in a futuristic Britain, which has become the world’s sole superpower after a chemical holocaust made most of the planet uninhabitable. This ever-so-slightly despotic Britain rules over a colony, called the Colony, in what was once Australia, and its supposedly oppressed workforce are imported every day via a colossal elevator, the Fall, which connects the territories via the Earth’s core.

But Quaid is not who he thinks he is. Bored with his dull life and his outrageously beautiful wife (how?!), he attempts to have false memories of a more exciting reality inserted in his brain through a system called Rekall, only to cause a major system crash when it turns out he already has those memories, for real, and everything else has been inserted. Learning he is actually Carl Hauser, a military big wig turned pro-Colony freedom fighter, he goes on the run from the cops (both human and robot) and his wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), who is also an imposter and the top agent assigned to keep him under lock and key.

Soon Quaid/Hauser teams up with his real love interest Melina (Jessica Biel), and following clues left by himself before the memory implant embarks on a quest to save the Colony from all-out enslavement by the Big Brotherish Britain.

No-road rage: Kate Beckinsale in her magnetic hover car

Production-wise Total Recall has more money than it knows what to do with. Inspired by, amongst others, Blade Runner and Minority Report, it adequately shows a fusion of cultures (Asian and South American) in the Colony, and the soaring metropolis that has built up around London in the United Federation of Britain. And yet, there’s nothing particularly dystopic about this world. Its class system seems unfair, but not much worse than what we have at present, and the horror that the villains wish to unleash is never actually seen. Unlike the drab and lifeless world of Verhoeven’s Total Recall, this doesn’t look at all like the worst of possible futures.

Yet there are plenty of fine touches in the production; the gravity reversing elevator of the Fall feels fresh to sci-fi, while electric web guns, magnetic hover cars and a device that shoots hundreds of tiny cameras show signs of creativity and inspiration lacking in much of the script. Quaid finds himself tracked not by a bug in his brain as in the original film, but by a mobile phone built into his hand – a technology that feels not impossibly far off now.

Where Wiseman excels is in the lengthy action scenes, which include some barnstorming set pieces, all of which slightly overstay their welcome but never exhaust. Upon being surrounded by elite cops, Quaid proceeds to take them out in a frenetic, sweeping digitally altered single take, shortly before being confronted by his vicious, flexible fake wife, who proceeds to teach him a move or two. Beckinsale is given the majority of the best stunts to do, and performs them with plenty of panache – her knees-first slides are some of the most memorable moments in the film. A major central action piece, involving a series of elevators that can travel sideways as well as upwards, feels a little too much like a Mario Bros. game, with the characters leaping from platform to platform and avoiding getting crushed in corridors. Indeed, the entire film has quite a computer gamey feel to it. The epilepsy-inducing scrolling lens flares don’t help.

Jessica Biel and Colin Farrell in some sort of threatening situation or other

The screenplay by Kurt Wimmer (Equilibrium, Salt) and Mark Bomback (Die Hard 4) is as lacking in urgency as it is in one liners (comparatively, the 1990 film was written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, who wrote Alien). Worse still it fails to build in any way on the original story, which given 22 years has passed is almost inexcusable. In the interim audiences have been exposed to The Matrix, eXistenZ and Inception, so questions of reality and identity are no longer new, or even pressing. The one scene in the original Total Recall that truly questioned Quaid’s reality (he is confronted by a scientist who claims he is dreaming) is reproduced here in an exhaustingly extended form, where Quaid is confronted by a close friend rather than an expert. The conclusion to the scene is slightly different, but not enough to justify a Total Recall post-Matrix.

Even the always brilliant Bryan Cranston as the villain Cohaagen can’t elevate this film beyond a passing entertainment. Bill Nighy and John Cho show up in brief cameos, but they could be anyone. While Beckinsale looks as though she is always having plenty of fun (her husband directing may have given her free rein), Farrell only really pushes his limits during the action sequences, and slumps when he’s not on the run. A highlight of the film sees him come face to face with an interactive recording of his former self – the two Farrells are played by his very different guises, the clean-shaven, slick-haired, baby-faced Farrell of In Bruges and Phone Booth, and the goateed, dangerous Farrell of Daredevil and Intermission. It’s a cute touch. Meanwhile, Jessica Biel, usually a limited actress, is deadwood in a criminally underwritten role.

For all its gloss and bang, this is a fun but forgettable sci-fi action movie, that crucially fails to justify itself as a remake at this time. There’s plenty of talent evident, let’s just hope it can be used more substantially in future.

2/5

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An interview with Len Wiseman

Len Wiseman on set

I recently interviewed Hollywood action movie director Len Wiseman for Film Ireland magazine while he was in town to promote Total Recall (2012). We discussed his new film, how to structure an action sequence, the unfortunate censorship of Live Free or Die Hard/Die Hard 4.0 and the big question of the day: which was the better action movie, The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises?

It took making a movie with Colin Farrell to get Len Wiseman to Ireland. The Californian director of Total Recall was on his star’s home turf for the European premiere of the movie, when I spoke with him at Dublin’s Merrion Hotel. Busy with press and the premiere that day, he assured me that Farrell had promised to show him the town before he left.

Wiseman, a director of high-octane video game-influenced action blockbusters was a strong choice to put in charge of this sci-fi remake, originally made by the Dutch master Paul Verhoeven in 1990. That film starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doug Quaid, a blue collar worker who discovers all his memories have been implanted, and he is actually a spy. Big shoes had to be filled, especially when remaking a film that was so commercially successful while also wooing critics. Wiseman launched his name through the Underworld movies, vampires versus werewolves romps, which he created and now produces – the series has now taken nearly $500,000,000 worldwide. His Total Recall, following The Dark Knight Rises into cinemas, has not had as warm a reception thus far. So what drew him to the project?

“It kind of came to me out of left field,” he admitted. “I’d been focused on prepping a different movie at the time that didn’t go through. They sent me a script, I actually read it with quite a bit of scepticism about what it would be. I’m a fan of the original, so I was more reading it trying to convince myself why not to do it. I was just hooked by the direction that it went in, it was a very different take, and it felt like such a different experience than the Verhoeven film.”

Wiseman is a fan of the original film, but confessed when he saw it first, aged 17, he was “just going to see the next Arnold action movie!” Years later, in college, he read the short story it was based on, ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, by sci-fi soothsayer Philip K. Dick, unaware of the connection. “I remember reading and thinking: ‘Hey this is that movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger!’ When I read the story it did have a very different kind of Quaid to me, and it was a different experience. So that’s what made me feel both more comfortable and [with the script]; it reminded me more of the short story.”

Total Recall (1990) and Total Recall (2012): How times have (sort of) changed

Verhoeven’s Total Recall can still surprise now, given that it touches on concepts such as “what is reality?” nearly 10 years before The Matrix and eXistenZ. So what message can Total Recall carry now, another 12 years later? Wiseman said the idea of implanting happier memories than the ones we have, through the sci-fi product ‘Rekall’, is more pertinent now than ever. “If the technology actually gets to the point where we can experience something like Rekall, is it the right thing to do?” he suggested. “Is it safe? To me it’s amazing that Philip K. Dick’s work, not just in this story, is so relevant. Some people just have a window into our future and where we’re going. I mean even Facebook, look at what we have today, we’re ordering up, putting up the pictures that we want, saying this is who I am, how I’m describing myself. I’ll leave out all the bad stuff. This is my alter ego of me, who I want to be. Rekall is an extension of that science. An extension of our technology of being actually able to say ‘this is who I want to be’.”

This Total Recall has a particularly glossy look, with its story shifting between a futuristic London and its enslaved colony in Australia. Influenced by the likes of Blade Runner and Minority Report and Wiseman’s ever-growing collection of sci-fi artwork (he refers to his home as a “big geek fest”), the director explained that his team also borrowed the look of Rio de Janeiro’s slums and Asian fishing villages to create a “hodge podge” of interlocking cultures. The decision to bathe the film in light was taken on his own distaste for underlit action movies. “I love to see what is going on,” he said, “both in my camera movements, in the way that things are choreographed. [Cinematographer] Paul Cameron did an amazing job. We talked about it a lot; that’s why there’s so much practical light within those sets, so we can have a reason to splash light all over the place. I think you can have a very dark image – Total Recall is very dark – but you can still see everything because the contrast level is able to be really dark when it’s black, but as long as you’re putting spots on everything that you need to see it works.”

And what about those extended, frenetic action scenes? “I think it’s very important for an action sequence to be its own story, and have a first act, second act, third act within the action. Otherwise it’s just relentless action – it doesn’t make any sense. There is a difference between just an action scene and an action sequence, and what it means to me is that in an action sequence you can remember the sequence, it should tell some story and ratch it up and tell its conclusion rather than just be noise and shaky cameras.”

Wiseman directs Jessica Biel

Perhaps the film’s finest moment is a sequence where Farrell’s Quaid rediscovers his talents as a spy and surprises himself by taking out a dozen SWAT team members in what appears to be a single, swooping take. “It appears to be!” Wiseman laughed, like a magician who delights in revealing his tricks. “That was something that was very difficult. It’s funny because when there’s something that people don’t quite grasp they go *snap fingers* “CG”, because we’re in a day and age where that’s commonplace. But it was 100% practical – it was put together with what are called super slider rigs, that they shoot football games with. They’re these remote cameras that move at about 35mph so you can’t man them. It was a lot of R&D on our end, but we put seven of those tracks together and what would happen is one of these cameras would go along at 35mph and when it crossed another one the computer would pick up and this one would take off from where the other left off. And we stitched all of those together. It took two days to shoot. Colin and the guys had to do the fight 22 times!”

Wiseman was clearly impressed with his leading man. “I had the funnest time with Colin. He’s a complete pleasure, and such a professional as well. And immensely funny, that’s one thing really struck me. He’s very talented, he has a hold body of work that’s wildly intelligent, but I was not aware of just how quick witted and funny he is. It really makes a difference on set to have somebody who’s devoted but also keeps it fun.”

Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale: Not-so-happily married

It’s less easy to ask Wiseman about working with his leading lady, Kate Beckinsale, without feeling as though your probing like a tabloid mag; the pair are married, having met on the set of the first Underworld film. She plays Lori, a spy pretending to be Quaid’s wife, keeping him under her thumb before having to hunt him down when he discovers who he is. I asked Wiseman if it’s coincidence he gave her character all the best lines. “A lot of those lines are her!” he replied. “Part of what I wanted from Kate and why I thought she’d be great for this movie is that people don’t realise through the Underworld movies or through the serious dramas and indies that she’s done is that she has such a sharp and fun and cunning sense of humour. And I knew that she would be able to bring a lot of that to the film. I wanted Laurie to have a taunting quality to Colin, and I knew that she would know how to bring that. So a lot of the one-liners are hers.”

Very much in demand these days, Bryan Cranston was cast as the totalitarian Chancellor Cohaagen, his first villainous role in a movie since his character Walter White shifted from hero to villain in his TV series Breaking Bad. The choice was an obvious one for Wiseman. “He was my first choice. I was watching Breaking Bad at the time and I was like ‘I’ve gotta work with this guy’. The thing that surprised me about him is that I had no idea about his other show (the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, which ran for six years in the early ‘00s), so I didn’t see that side of him. I only know him as Walter White. So he shows up and I thought ‘You know what, this guy has such a menacing quality about him that he may be difficult to work with’. I was setting myself up for who knows. He could not be a sweeter guy! And I kept waiting for that [mean] side of him to come out … because he’s so great in that role as Walter White. He’s a dear guy but just has a great presence in the film.”

Colin Farrell regrets trying to steal meth from Bryan Cranston

Wiseman went on to tell me about his pre-Underworld days, when he worked as a props master on Independence Day director Roland Emmerich’s biggest films of the 1990s. He described the experience as “a bit of film school for me in terms of problem solving, technique and using a budget”, before sharing an anecdote in which Emmerich, despite having a $75,000,000 for Independence Day, was ordering sets to be built at the last minute from leftover pieces of other film’s sets. “We literally built this little set in an hour of a hallway that was needed, just on the fly, and then walk them through and done. That was really helpful.”

With a fifth film in the Die Hard series due next year, was Wiseman ever in the run for to direct it, following his successful fourth instalment Live Free Or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0) back in 2007? “It was, it was. Bruce [Willis] kind of went out there publicly and said so, but I was already working. I would love to jump in the ring again, but I was already well into the mix.”

Bruce Willis in Live Free or Die Hard (4.0)

The director also admitted his disappointment at how the studio censored that film. “I shot a rated R movie,” he insisted, and referenced the ‘Harder’ cut available on DVD. “I had no idea it was going to be PG-13; that came in halfway through the process. And I gotta tell you as a fan I felt like “I’m gonna walk.” If they it PG-13! You know Bruce was really up in arms about it and everything. But in the end it was the most expensive Die Hard. It was also my first studio film, so I lost that battle over the rating. I’m not big on doing the cartoon gore. But McClane is McClane, so that’s really why I was glad to get that (the extended cut) out.”

The question all action movie fans need to be asked this summer is The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises? Wiseman seemed very torn up about having to choose. “I actually thought beforehand ‘Dark Knight Rises is gonna hit it out of the park, but Avengers, that’s gonna be interesting, how are you gonna pull that one off?’ And I mean I was just watching [Avengers] thinking ‘I’m really liking this. It’s servicing the characters very well, it’s tying in very well, it’s really fun’, and I completely got into. I gotta say, the end of Dark Knight, how it all wrapped up and tied up I really liked. But Avengers was just… you walk out of that movie saying ‘That was so much fun.’ The difference is: Avengers I’ve seen twice.”

Kate Wiseman in Underworld: Evolution

So when the media circuit, or “circus” as Wiseman corrected me, for Total Recall is done, what will he do next? More Underworld? “I actually don’t know about Underworld!” he admitted, somewhat sheepishly. “I should be the right guy to ask, but I actually said there wasn’t going to be a fourth one! So I’m not sure about that. I’m producing a movie called Darkness, which is based off the Top Cow comic books. Then I’ve got two scripts that I’m working on – I’d love to get back to my own creations again.

“That’s how I started my career. Sequels and remakes are a thing of the past for me, I’d love to go back to getting my scripts off the ground.”

Total Recall is out in cinemas in Ireland and the UK now.

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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