Total Recall

It is often easier to write about something we don’t like, rather than something we do. When I’ve tried to write about my favourite movies I find myself hesitant and halting, anxious I won’t do justice to these films, won’t be able to properly express why I love them so. With that in mind, I come to the new Total Recall, a film about which I have no such inhibitions.

Total Recall is a failure on almost every level. The film suffers a myriad of plot and setting inconsistencies, which we will come to later. But even more pervasive than these inconsistencies is the artificial feel of the movie. It took me about twenty minutes to nail down why the visuals are somehow not convincing, until I realised midway through one of Colin Farrell’s endless series of acrobatic leaps that none of it was real. The dazzling, riotously busy cityscape is merely the work of a team of computer graphics technicians, and our erstwhile hero Colin is leaping not from the balcony of an upside-down cyberpunk apartment building but from a green-painted box in a studio in California. For the rest of the movie I couldn’t take any of it seriously. The hover-car chases, massive explosions, and death-defying leaps become meaningless when you can’t believe they’re happening. Special effects can be an invaluable tool for modern movie-making but once the brain realises it is being tricked it is very hard to suspend disbelief again.

The structure of the movie is tedious. Once Colin flips out at Recall and then his wife turns on him, the movie becomes one long chase sequence, covering rooftop slums, hover-car freeways, futuristic elevator shafts and various other CG settings. The heroes are never given a moment’s rest but constantly hounded by faceless robotic soldiers. It’s stuck in high gear, and that is boring, especially when the action is so devoid of life. Shooting or punching a robot is boring, because the robot has nothing invested in the conflict. A robot as represented in this movie doesn’t care if it lives or dies, and it cares about its mission only because it is programmed to. It doesn’t suffer pain or injury so we don’t care when its arm gets smashed off or whatever, and there is never a suspicion that things might ultimately go badly for Colin or Jessica. They are impervious to explosions, huge falls and automatic weapons fire from ten metres away. The chief problem of the movie is that there’s no reason to care about any of it.

The casting is not perfect, either – while Colin Farrell and Jessica Biel are fine as the leading couple, Kate Beckinsale seems out of place and her accent switches from scene to scene, seemingly at random. Bryan Cranston is bizarrely cast as the villain Coehagen, who moves from cunning politician to wannabe-general to final-boss pugilist, and he’s not really believable as any of them. Bill Nighy is criminally underused in a very brief appearance as the rebel leader and made to put on an unconvincing American accent – if you need your character to have an American accent, why not get an American actor? These two fine comic actors are also denied any chance of injecting some humour into this utterly humourless movie. Even the call-back appearance of the three-breasted prostitute is dealt with clinically, without raising a smile either on screen or in the audience.

So now on to the many inconsistencies and things that just plain don’t make any sense. The setting of the movie is Earth, sometime in the future after a massive war has rendered most of the world uninhabitable. The remaining outposts of civilisation are the “United Federation of Britain”, which appears to cover the British Isles and the fringes of continental Europe; and the “Colony”, which is Australia. All other areas are filled with some kind of poisonous gas. The two are linked by a tunnel called “The Fall”, which runs directly through the Earth and has a large vehicle which can transport people between the two ends in seventeen minutes. The Federation forces people from the Colony to work cheaply in Federation factories, setting up the primary conflict of the film, the supposed unrest in the Colony and Coehagen’s efforts to crack down on Colonial terrorists and eventual plan to attack and conquer the Colony with robots.

Leaving aside the obvious difficulty involved in building a stable tunnel through thousands of kilometres of liquid metal heated to thousands of degrees and under crushing pressure, this journey seems impossible and no effort is made to explain how it happens. Without going into the math, travelling the diameter of the Earth in seventeen minutes means you have to travel at an average speed of over 45,000 km/h. Assuming it takes some time to speed up and slow down, the peak speed achieved must be many times higher than this. All sorts of questions regarding thrust and aerodynamic heating suggest themselves, especially given that the vehicle is essentially a cube that can apparently hold fifty thousand people, though I may have misheard that part. Beyond that there are for some reason emergency exits on this craft, which at one point Colin and Jessica climb out of while it’s moving and are not immediately disintegrated.

The biggest problem with ‘The Fall’, however, is revealed by the film’s own ending. Colin blows up the top of the tunnel and the vehicle, isolating the Colony and giving them “a chance at independence” from the tyrannical federation. Colin is hailed as a liberator. But if all the Colony had to do to free itself from the Federation was destroy the Fall, and this would be roundly acclaimed as a good thing… why didn’t they just destroy it? Matthias’ rebels have automatic weapons and between them and the government of the Colony it is not a stretch to suggest they could acquire or manufacture explosives. Blow up the tunnel, cut off the Federation, movie over before it starts. It is hard to understand the relationship between the two civilised areas, probably because it is never explicitly discussed and there is not enough work done establishing the setting before the interminable chase begins.

There are several minor nonsenses that add to the feeling of incoherence. When Colin unwittingly leads the bad-guys to the rebel base, they arrive within ten seconds of the computer virus or whatever being triggered. If they came from the city, shouldn’t it have taken them like at least half an hour? If they were right outside the whole time, why have the virus at all? In this scene they burst through the windows into the base – windows ostensibly keeping out the poison gas – and proceed to wander about chatting with no masks for ten-ish minutes. If, as is revealed earlier, Matthias’ group is not actually carrying out the bombings, what precisely are they doing? Why does Coehagen find it so objectionable that he has to seek them out and destroy them? At the end Kate sneaks into Colin’s ambulance, disguised as Jessica – apparently to finish him off – but rather than just shoot him while he’s asleep, she waits for him to wake up, see through her disguise and overpower her. This kind of garbage ruins any suspension of disbelief you may have sustained up to this point.

Total Recall is a tepid, incoherent, humourless nonsense. The pervasive use of green-screen sucks all the life out of the setting, and the issues raised by physics-defying sci-fi elements are simply ignored. The plot makes no sense, the action is not compelling, there’s no tension or invention in any of it and no reason to care about the characters, the conflict or this movie.

Wine Essentials Course

For the past four weeks I’ve spent two hours each Wednesday night imbibing not insignficant amounts of wine as part of the Wine Education Centre‘s ‘Essentials’ course. From the website:

This Wednesday course covers: how to taste wine, white wine styles, red wine styles, a winery tour and visit, and a food and wine matching experience. This course is recommended for those who want to have fun learning about red and white wine varieties.

Which is a pretty fine summary, though there was also a lot of information about how wine is made, from grape growing through to bottling and storing. Each of the first three sessions was split in half, with an hour of essentially a uni lecture complete with notes and powerpoints followed by an hour of tasting. Our guide was Rod Properjohn, a professional wine and food critic who normally teaches the more advanced classes. There were six wines to taste each session, with a good range of different grape varieties and winemaking styles – as well as price points – covered. For a complete beginner like me this was most appreciated, since I wouldn’t have known a Shiraz from a Shih Tzu before I started. While the first week covered all kinds of wine, the second and third weeks were whites and reds respectively.

On the Saturday following the third week, we went for a winery tour – and another tasting session – at Sitellas up in the Swan Valley. This was the night after Tarrant’s homecoming do so I had about three hours sleep and a belly still full of beer, but they put on an excellent show up there and we got to try grapes off the vine and half-fermented wine, as well as check out each stage in the wine-making process as they were currently in the middle of vintage. The most interesting thing I saw was the cane-cut grapes, which is a technique for making dessert wines. Basically you cut part of the vine so it’s not connected to the main vine anymore – the cut vine dies, and the grapes on it get especially sweet because they aren’t able to take in any more moisture.

The final Wednesday was a set menu dinner with paired wines at the George Street Bistro – we had two wines with each dish, so we could discuss which went better with the food and why. The food was fantastic, especially the Hungarian Goulash main which had been cooked for hours the previous day. The wines generally matched very well, and it was great to see put into practice what Rod was talking about in class.

At $295 per person, the course is definitely an extravagance, and had I not won a gift voucher I’m not sure I would have wanted to shell out for it. With hindsight though I can say it was excellent value for money – on top of the educational stuff we tried more than thirty wines, at up to $90 a bottle, and had an ~$80 dinner and a winery tour thrown in at no extra cost. If you can spare the cash and wine interests you you’ll definitely get your money’s worth.

Before I go on to any of the advanced courses, I intend to drink a lot more wine – my homework, if you will. The thing I struggled with in the course is the bouquet – my olfactory senses are not terribly nimble or well trained, and if you say one wine smells of Grapefruit while another smells of Forest Floor I’m just going to have to take your word for it. They have some pretty appealing courses on offer though, particularly the Wine Varietals course which goes in depth with particular varieties and has you doing blind tastings, trying to identify grape variety and other characteristics of unmarked wines from look, smell and taste. If anyone wants to help me practice – by drinking a whole bunch of wine together – do give me a call!

Automotive Travails

My local friends will be at least passingly familiar with my frequent troubles when it comes to cars – a policy of spending the absolute least possible to purchase and maintain my vehicles means I’ve often had mechanical problems, some of which can be ignored and others that can’t. I’m undecided as to which category the latest falls in to.

When Amanda and I split up, I had to leave behind the beautiful Monaro I’d been driving for the last year or so. With the above history in mind, I’ve decided to save up and get a reasonably new and reliable car this time. In the meantime however I needed a car to get around, and the generous and all-round good fella Dean stepped up with a loaner – a 1980 Volvo saloon.

Now I don’t want to be too hard on the Volvo. Sure, it has all the sleek lines and style of a lego car – not the advanced kits, mind, but the kind the eight-year old you created from scratch and then threw down the stairs to watch it smash apart. Sure the radio volume will go up or down according to its whim, no matter which way you turn the knob. Sure there’s no off setting for the ventilation fan. It’s European, it’s supposed to be quirky. For a car with 427,000km on the clock it’s been extremely reliable, and it’s faithfully gotten me from A to B for a couple of months now.

cue ominous music.

Yesterday morning, halfway to work, this weird song came on. There was this unpleasant whining sound running through the whole thing, but at least it wasn’t dubstep, so I left it go. The song ended, and the whining continued, more loudly. Puzzled I revved the engine, with no appreciable difference to the sound. I slowed down and dropped a gear, no different. Pretty quickly I figured out it was coming from the vent fans, somewhere behind the dash.

Let me describe this sound to you, if I can. Imagine a mosquito, somewhere in the Australian outback. This mosquito is no ordinary mosquito. He has big ambitions. He’s not content to just suck kangaroo blood and buzz around. He sees some blokes playing the didgeridoo, and he thinks, “I want to play music like that.” So every night he hangs around at the campfire, as quiet as can be, and watches them playing. He picks up their techniques. He learns how to control his breathing for an uninterrupted sound. After they go to sleep, he tries to play, but he can’t fit his tiny mosquito lips around the top. He’s only a mosquito, and mosquitoes can’t play the didgeridoo. But what he can play is the kazoo.

So there’s this fucking mosquito prodigy sitting behind the dash of this Volvo, blowing away on his kazoo. But he can’t make a tune. What the fuck do mosquitoes know about music theory? So he just blows and blows and blows, and the volume he gets you wouldn’t believe. If I turn the fan up I get a different pitch. If I turn the fan down it starts to wobble, which is somehow even more grating. If I turn the fan off – BUT WAIT, I CAN’T, BECAUSE VOLVO ENGINEERS DID NOT DEIGN TO INSTALL AN “OFF” SWITCH FOR THE FAN.

That is the sound I have heard to and from work for the last two days. The car runs perfectly well, but this sound is nigh unbearable. Fortunately mosquitoes only live for two weeks, so I trust the situation will resolve itself. Like every mechanical issue it can best be solved by ignoring it.

Cowboys and Aliens

I’ve been looking forward to Cowboys and Aliens since the first sniff of a trailer – besides the outstanding premise encapsulated by the title, it has Harrison Ford as a grizzled old cowboy. It’s finally out, and I saw it tonight. It’s not quite as awesome as it perhaps should have been, but still pretty good, and I give it a 7/10. That’s the short version and spoilers await you below – though this isn’t the sort of movie where that will matter an awful lot.

What Works

Daniel Craig – Having last seen Craig as a posh British spy I wasn’t sure how he’d go as a rough tough buckaroo, but I was pleasantly surprised. He drips grim-faced confidence as the protagonist Jake Lonergan, a kind of Man-with-no-name with an alien super-weapon strapped to his forearm. His interplay with the town’s denizens make me think there could have been a pretty excellent Western here if they’d left out the invasion of the body snatchers. He gets his shirt off about forty minutes in, if you were wondering. There is glistening.

Harrison Ford – How this hasn’t happened before I do not know. Ford is perfect as Woodrow Dolarhyde, an army vet turned rancher, whose cattle business is the only thing keeping the nearby town alive. His sense of entitlement and ruthlessness early in the piece give him the air of a mob boss, and he would have made a great villain for the theoretical Cowboys and More Cowboys.

Cowboys and Aliens  (round 1) – The first battle with the aliens is really good – the aliens cruise around in their flying saucers owning people while the cowboys try to fight back the only way they know how. The effects are good and the whole scene works well. The same goes for the latter battle when the bandits are chasing the protagonists and the aliens start blasting everyone.

The Dog – In the first scene Lonergan kills some guys for giving him lip, and their dog decides to hang out with him for the rest of the movie. Dogs make everything better, and this particular mutt is cute and loyal and grins like an idiot the whole time, like all good dogs should.

What doesn’t work

The Aliens – Once we start getting the aliens on the ground, the movie becomes a lot less convincing. For some reason we get a whole lot of detail on the aliens’ plan, their motivations and so forth, but it’s really not interesting and it spoils the sense that this enemy is unknowable and completely, well, alien to the cowboy protagonists. Perhaps the source material had a lot more time to go into all this but shoehorning it into what is quite a short film was a mistake.

Cheap Scares – For some reason the aliens are like horror aliens, with swords for arms and creepy deformed T-Rex arms they keep tucked away next to their lungs. As such they know well the old trick of “pretend to walk by your prey’s hiding spot until they exhale with relief, then jump back from off screen and yell really loudly.” Apparently it’s the only trick they know though, because they pull it twice in the one movie, on the same character no less. It’s incredibly obvious both times.

The second half – About halfway through the movie somebody steps on the accelerator, and we race through genre cliche after genre cliche in an attempt to pack as many in as possible. It almost works until we get to the Indians. Way too much time is taken up translating what these guys are saying to each other, there’s a shitty CG hummingbird, whatever. Dolarhyde learns a lesson about not being racist maybe. After that we get into the alien mothership where we see a whole lot more of their backstory and so on which detracts from the film as a Western.

This line of dialogue – Lonergan and two other mooks have climbed up the side of the mothership to lob some dynamite in a hole near the top. Lonergan asks mook A for his matches to light the fuse, so the mook gets them out but drops them over the side, because he sucks. He then says “I’m all out of matches. We’re going to have to go back down. I don’t know what to do.” We know that, you idiot, the camera just showed you climbing up a big fucking thing then dropping all your matches five seconds ago, you don’t have to tell us!

That’s a Wrap

I guess my major problem is the weighting given to the Aliens half of the film. The only good characters are the cowboys, and so I would have preferred if it had been played as a straight western where the bad guys happened to be Aliens who had stumbled into the wild west – as it is it starts that way, but then flips so it’s like the cowboys have stumbled into a sci-fi film. The alien chick character has virtually no screen presence next to Craig and Ford, she has no good characterisation or dialogue, and when she suicide-bombs the alien ship I could not have cared less. I don’t want to sound too negative though as I did enjoy the movie and both male leads are excellent, it just wasn’t quite what it could have been. 7/10.

Battlestar Galactica I

Potential spoilers up to and including s2e5

I am a few years late on this one. Sci-fi television has a sorry track record in my mind: when Stargate SG-1 is an exemplar of the form, you might want to take a good look at your form. There’s nothing wrong with the generic tropes, though, and spaceships and lasers are pretty compelling even without a plot or interesting characters to inhabit the setting, so a good sci-fi show should theoretically make excellent entertainment.My interest in Battlestar Galactica was piqued by an invite from Ben to play the board game (which will get its own post at some point, as it’s rather good). Taking advantage of my annual leave last week I knocked out the introductory mini-series and season one (of four) in a day.

The quick premise is that the spacefaring human race has been all but wiped out by the Cylons, a robotic race that includes some members who are indistinguishable from human beings. The series follows the Galactica, the only war-ship to survive the attacks, and its assorted civilian hangers-on as they flee with the last remnants of humanity in search of sanctuary from the pursuing Cylon fleet, while the humanoid-cylons are running espionage aboard Galactica. This leads to some thrilling reveals, false positives and verbal sparring, and despite some piss-poor CGI on the mechanical cylons the show is pretty gripping to this point. This is largely down to the characters, who are all pretty love-em-or-hate-em. My favourites:

Gaius Baltar: The weasel of the group, Baltar is like a cross between Casanova and Rincewind. The most brilliant scientist on the human planet Caprica, he inadvertently lets his girlfriend – the Cylon Caprica Six – into the human defence systems, where she disables them in advance of the attack that nearly wipes out humanity. Baltar’s reputation secures him safe passage aboard Galactica and eventually sees him advance to the position of vice president, all the while hallucinating his robotic ex is trying to have sex with him and/or convince him he is an instrument of the Cylon God. Baltar has basically all my favourite scenes so far.

Caprica Six: Have you seen this woman?

Starbuck: Ass-kicking, authority-disrespecting, tomboy hotshot pilot. She’s not the most original concept, but Katee Sackhoff plays her with enough panache that she doesn’t feel like a cliche. The last episode I saw was The Farm, the first half of which had me wondering if she was a Cylon – a theory quickly debunked by the second half of the ep. Looking forward to her return to the fleet.

Commander Adama: The grizzled veteran and father figure (or literal father in one case) to the rest of Galactica’s crew, he shows the clearest and most rational decision making ability of any of the characters. He also has a face almost as craggy as Barrie Cassidy, which is endearing in some way I don’t quite understand.

Tom Zarek: I can’t shake the visual association with The Fonz since he started wearing a greaser jacket. Major bonus points.

Most of the other characters are pretty okay, but there are some I don’t like so much:

Saul Tigh: A douche.

Apollo: Another douche. Pretty sure it’s only a matter of time before he starts banging…

Laura Roslin: She is, by a significant margin, the very worst character in the board game. She’s not much better in the show.

The show’s major strength is the characters, and I’m not sure how well the setting holds up if you start to push and poke at it – the biggest mysteries of the show so far are why the fifty thousand remaining humans are so freaking concerned about their civil rights while fleeing a relentless army of killing machines, and where the hell they found a stenographer’s typewriter for s1e6. As for what’s coming up: Boomer just admitted under duress that there are eight Cylon agents in the fleet, and somehow putting a number on things like this builds the anticipation dramatically. Pretty sure we’re going to see the black dude Cylon from The Farm somewhere in the fleet before Starbuck and Helo get back there. What I really want to see though is more sleeper agents like Boomer, which will mean more jaw-dropping reveals. Guess they save those for season finales though, right?

That’s all for now, I’m gonna get back to watching. Hit me up below or in any of the normal places if you want to talk BSG!