Total Recall not special, Queen of Versailles astounding, Ruby Sparks and two other indies charm

Colin Farrell turns action star in Total Recall but not like Arnie

Some weeks are thin, and then there are some like this. Ten new films open today. Who knows why they bunch up like that? And what can they hope for while the Olympics pull away the customers.

Here’s the rather lengthy list:

Total Recall:  2 ½ stars

The Queen of Versailles:   4

Ruby Sparks:  3 ½

Celeste and Jesse Forever:  3

Miss Bala:  3 ½

360:  2 ½

Union Square:  3

Girlfriend Boyfriend:  2 ½

Soldiers of Fortune:  --

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days:  --

TOTAL RECALL:  In the 1990 original, Arnold Schwarzenegger was, you know, too  Arnie, to be a believable everyman. In this remake, Colin Farrell is convincing alright but dials it down so much, he fails to be interesting. He gives that stage to his two women co-stars, Kate Beckinsale as his wife, who spends much of the film trying to kill him, and Jessica Biel as a revolutionary who helps him run. The two women also try to kill each other in a memorable fight in an elevator which has two effects. It reminds us of the goofy, kinky flavor of the first film and how undistinguished this new one is.  It’s a standard action film drawing on Blade Runner, The Fifth Element and others for its visual inspiration and fumbling the provocative ideas about identity of its source, Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” 

The time is the 23rd Century. The earth’s atmosphere is destroyed and only Great Britain and a colony that seems to be Australia are inhabitable. There’s an independence movement; bombs are exploding and Farrell’s character is fed up with his job in a robot factory. When he goes for a memory implant, he finds he’s not who he thought he was.  The story is intriguing until the action takes over. It’s big and loud but  less exiting than it should be and reminded me of old movie serials. Bill Nighy shows up as a rebel leader just long enough for a useless conversation about the present compared to the past.   (Scotiabank and suburban theatres everywhere)  2 ½ out of 5

THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES: The theme here is excess. Too much money. Too much shopping. Ostentation and shameless consumption. I felt an even bigger one: the amount of access some people are willing to give the cameras looking into their lives. They’re not really flaunting their wealth but they sure are proud of it.


The queen is Jackie Siegel, a former beauty queen and educated engineer now married to David Siegel the founder and CEO of the world’s largest timeshare real estate company. He’s 30 years older than she is but needs no Viagra, she says. She gets Botox in one scene and displays a suspiciously large cleavage in all of them. They get carried away planning their dream home in Florida, adding more and more rooms until, with 30 bathrooms and 10 kitchens, it would have been the largest anywhere in the U.S.A. Would have been. The 2008 financial meltdown stopped construction, threw David’s companies into danger of failing and forced Jackie and her kids to fly “commercial” (not private) for a change. It was during this downturn that the camera catches David grumpy and nasty, even as his wife tries to console him and his son tries to tell him he loves him. An extravagant shopping spree and a curiously joyless Christmas morning of opening presents follow. No modesty though in this garishly fascinating film.   (5th Avenue) 4 out of 5 

RUBY SPARKS: Finally, a new film from Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, the couple who made Little Miss Sunshine and once again it’s a quirky charmer. It’s also a fable with more than a little bite. Zoe Kazan, Elia’s granddaughter, wrote it to speak of identity and control. She stars in it, along with her boyfriend Paul Dano.

He plays a writer who once published a hit novel and can’t find an idea for a second. Ruby appears to him in dreams and when a therapist has him write a one-page description, she appears for real. He’s taken by her innocence (she’s never even heard of F. Scott Fitzgerald) and her candid openness. “You’re so not my type,” she tells him. He can mould her though just by writing how he wants her to be, a gift his brother urges him not to waste. Of course, he gets carried away, in a sequence that follows a sign of independence from her with some near-humiliation by him. The scene is uncomfortable; it goes too far but it lets Kazan express her feelings about men and their dream girls. Before and after it, the film is amusing, witty, affecting and entertaining. (5th Avenue, International Village) 3 ½ out of 5

CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER:  This is a revelation. Two TV faces, Rashida Jones of Parks and Recreation  and Andy Samberg, formerly of Saturday Night Live,  are endearing and sympathetic as a couple breaking up.  We don’t really know why but we don’t really want them to either.  That’s how much we get to like them.  The couple divorce but still spend time with each other.  Attempts at dating others don’t go well. There are quirky sexual references, a definite maturity gap between Celeste and Jesse and self-absorption in both.  But also an authentic feel, possibly because it’s at least somewhat true. Jones wrote the script with Will McCormack, who she had a relationship with and continued to see as a friend after they broke up.  It’s a depiction of a relationship that fits our times, much as (500) Days of Summer fit three years ago and When Harry Met Sally fit 20 years before that.  (International Village)  3  out of 5

MISS BALA: I’m happy this film is back. It’s been too long since it stirred up audiences at the film festival last fall. This is an exhilarating mixture of crime story, action and slightly art-house vibe.

Stephanie Sigman, a former model, stars as a small town-girl in Mexico who enters a beauty contest in Tijuana and despite a bad performance and even a temporary expulsion, wins.  That title, by the way, means “Miss Bullet.” A drug cartel guy has fixed the contest. It takes a while, a lot of gun play and a little bit of sex, to find out why. Then there’s more gunplay in this fast moving, colorful and very energetic film. (VanCity Theatre) 3 ½ out of 5

Playing in tandem with:

COAST MODERN the beautifully shot, well-explained celebration of modernist architecture made by local filmmakers Mike Bernard and Gavin Froome is also back. When it played for a week last month, it was one of the VanCity Theatre’s biggest hits ever.  

360: This feels more like an exercise in plot construction than a real movie.  There are multiple story lines playing out in many locations and connected only at the corners. They’re all on a theme of choosing which fork in the road to take when you encounter one. That , of course, could be any story, anywhere. Check out this menu. In Vienna, a Slovakian woman is lured into prostitution. Jude Law as a British businessman is foiled from meeting her by a colleague who tries to blackmail him. He goes home to London unaware that his wife (Rachel Weisz) is cheating on him with a younger man.  That man’s girlfriend is … wait.  To Paris first, where a devout Muslim is stalking and dreaming of a dalliance with a Russian woman. It’s forbidden. He’s married. Now, that girlfriend. She’s is off to Denver, Colorado where she meets Anthony Hopkins who’s daughter ran away when she found he was having an affair.  Something’s going around in this script.  The girlfriend also meets a sex offender (Ben Foster) sent from prison on an unaccompanied trip and repeatedly confronted with temptation. One of these stories plays out to an end. The others are left hanging.  Like real life I suppose although the many coincidental links in this film don’t feel real at all. The actors play it straight and well and the film moves easily among English and several other, subtitled languages.  (International Village)  2½ out of 5

UNION SQUARE:  The first new film in years from Nancy Savoca.  Her first,  1989’s True Love was recently named by Entertainment Weekly as one of the greatest 50 Independent Films of All-time.  Union Square is mild by comparison, although it has a fiery performance by Mira Sorvino  and a more subtle and therefore difficult one by Tammy Blanchard. They play sisters in New York who haven’t seen each other in three years and differ in just about every way. Mira is messy, profane and loudmouthed. She comes to visit Tammy who is neat, quiet and rejecting of her working class past. A string of petty annoyances and conflicts follow. Then the real goods come out. Both women have revelations forced out them although Mira’s are more surprising and harder to accept. Still, there’s very good acting here, a good ear for how sisters talk to (and sometimes snub) each other and an unusually oblique salute to the idea of family by Patti LuPone.  (Denman Theatre)  3 out of 5

GIRLFRIEND  BOYFRIEND (or GF*BF): In a couple of ways, this  is separate from the run of the mill Chinese romances and melodramas that come along. First, the director, Yang Ya-che. He made a major award winner, OrzBoyz, four years ago which also played at the Vancouver film festival. Second, the romance it set against three decades of social change in Taiwan. There are big scenes as huge crowds protest against the KMT government of the time. They’re demanding academic freedom but police with riot shields stand as a wall and an “ideology officer” throws around orders to a student newspaper.


We follow the story of three students who get involved in the movement and each other as friends, lovers and would-be lovers. It’s a triangle as Aaron fancies Mabel who really has eyes for Liam who, in a cautious attempt at a gay sub-plot, has feelings for Aaron. Loyalty and betrayal, idealism and selling out play against each other but not always successfully. The story isn’t always clear and that dulls the emotional effect. There is however an eye-moistening ending with excellent performance by Joseph Chang, a popular star in Taiwan, who subtly brings out both the conflicted and the loyal side of Liam. The Mandarin dialogue is subtitled in both English and Cantonese. (Silver City Riverport)  2 ½  out of 5


And two I haven’t seen …

SOLDIERS OF FORTUNE: If you just can't wait for The Expendables 2 with Sylvester Stallone coming in a couple of weeks you could make do for now with this cheap knock off with Christian Slater. He plays a disgraced special forces soldier who reluctantly takes a group of rich thrill-seekers on a real military mission. A U.S.-Russia and Ukraine co-production. IMDB has four pages of user reviews, almost all negative. (Granville Theatre)

DIARY OF A WIMPY KID: DOG DAYS: From Harry Potter to The Hobbit the trend these days is to split books into more than one movie. This film does the reverse. It combined books 3 and 4 (of the 6) into one, not to particularly good effect though, according to a friend.  The chief character, Greg Heffley, faces a bummer of a summer although I’m sure he’ll find something to do. (International Village, The Dolphin and many suburban theatres)

NOTE: All images are stills provided by the movie studios and are therefore the exclusive property of their copyright owners.

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