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After many months of examining cinematic history under the Total Recall banner, our column meets its destiny this week with the release of Len Wiseman's Total Recall remake. Of course, we knew we needed to dedicate this week's list to recall -- specifically, movies featuring protagonists who have lost their memory. Amnesia is a popular topic for filmmakers, leaving us with enough material to make this a special super-sized edition that features examples from pretty much every genre -- and we're still sure we managed to (ahem) "forget" at least one of your favorites. It's the total partial recall you've been waiting for!
Amnesia can be a heartbreaking ordeal for the afflicted -- or, in the case of Amateur's Thomas (Martin Donovan), a nifty way of having the reset button pushed on a life that's gotten bogged down in bad decisions. Of course, as Thomas quickly discovers, the past has a way of catching up to you, even if you're hiding from it in the arms of a nun-turned-pornographic writer (Isabelle Huppert). A surprising break from writer/director Hal Hartley's early quirky romances, Amateur still found an appreciative audience with Hartley fans like ReelViews' James Berardinelli, who wrote, "Certainly, the script fails to do much with the issue of confused identities, its ostensible theme, but Hartley's style is such a pleasure to watch that it isn't a major disadvantage for the substance to be weak."
When you don't even know who you are, it can be awfully dangerous to fall in with the wrong crowd -- which is possibly what's befallen the young amnesiac (played by Ingrid Bergman) at the center of of Anatole Litvak's Anastasia. Loosely based on a true story, it puts its young heroine at the center of a mystery: Is she really the lost Tsarina Anastasia, or just a patsy being manipulated by a Russian expat (Yul Brynner) with his own shadowy motives? The answer to the real-life question proved far less romantic than the film's, but for Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, viewers got all the truth they needed on the screen: "Miss Bergman's performance as the heroine is nothing short of superb," he wrote, "as she traces the progress of a woman from the depths of derangement and despair through a struggle with doubt and delusion to the accomplishment of courage, pride and love."
It seems laughable now, but before The Bourne Identity reached theaters, there were a lot of people who didn't think Matt Damon had what it took to be a convincing action hero. Those doubts were quickly erased with director Doug Liman's sleek, powerful adaptation of the Robert Ludlum novel -- a huge box office hit that was powered with equal parts explosive set pieces and a solid central performance by its star. As it turned out, Damon had not only the dramatic chops to realistically portray the fear and confusion of an amnesiac who slowly begins to realize he's a lethal assassin, but the physical presence to make audiences believe he could kill a man with a pen. The beginning of a trilogy so successful that it's continuing without Damon, Bourne provided smart popcorn entertainment for critics like Peter Keough of the Boston Phoenix, who quipped, "Who needs an identity when you're having this much fun?"
With The Bodyguard director Mick Jackson at the helm and SNL legend Dana Carvey in the lead, 1994's Clean Slate should have been a smash hit. Alas, this putative comedy about a private investigator afflicted with a rare form of amnesia suffered from humiliating reviews and poisonous word of mouth, dooming its theatrical run. Starring as Maurice Pogue, a P.I. who survives an attempted murder but loses the ability to retain his memories of the previous day after going to sleep at night, Carvey was faced with the arduous task of wringing laughs from the screenplay by Robert King (Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge). Most critics found it forgettable in all the wrong ways, but for Clint Morris of Moviehole, who argued "Carvey's great," it was "A comedic Memento."
Woody Allen's most expensive movie -- and, perhaps not coincidentally, his least favorite of his own films -- 2001's The Curse of the Jade Scorpion takes your standard Allen starting point (stammering nebbish finds love with improbably attractive woman) and wraps it in a complicated plot involving a crooked magician, hypnosis-induced amnesia, and Dan Aykroyd. It all added up to a pretty lumpy blend, at least as far as most critics were concerned, and audiences couldn't be bothered to find out whether or not they'd agree. Still, for a handful of scribes, Scorpion's sting was sweet: "This isn't vintage Woody -- we haven't seen that since, oh, Hannah and Her Sisters -- but it's good enough," argued Jean Lowerison of the San Diego Metropolitan.
Incontrovertible proof that amnesia comedies and bustiers go together, Desperately Seeking Susan kicked off Madonna's once-promising film career with the tale of a bored suburban housewife (Rosanna Arquette) who develops an obsession with a bleach-blonde free spirit named Susan (Madonna) and, through a series of unlikely events, ends up thinking she is Susan. Also, Egyptian jewelry is involved. It's vintage '80s cinema, from the shoulder pads in the wardrobes to the storyline's reliance on madcap humor -- but unlike most movies of its ilk, Susan resonated with most critics; as Dave Kehr admitted for the Chicago Reader, "The film acquires a pleasant, syncopated rhythm as it bounces from one unlikely event to another."
The protagonist who has no memory of his past, but must find a way to evade capture for crimes he's sure he didn't commit: It's a tale as old as noir, but Alex Proyas' Dark City tells it with singularly stylish élan, starring Rufus Sewell as an unfortunate soul who wakes up in a bathtub, takes a phone call warning him that men are on their way to capture him, and stumbles across a dead woman on his way out the door. Toss in a city where the sun never shines, a human race prone to random comas, and a telekinetic battle between our hero and a shadowy cabal known as the Strangers, and Dark City is unlike any mindbending love story/trippy action thriller you've ever seen; as Stephen Holden argued in his review for the New York Times, it's "so relentlessly trippy in a fun-house sort of way that it could very easily inspire a daredevil cult of moviegoers who go back again and again to experience its mind-bending twists and turns."
While he spent the early 1990s mugging it up for fans of perfectly obvious comedy, few people could have guessed that Jim Carrey would wind up sharing top billing with one of the premier actresses of her generation in a mindbending, critically beloved drama about the nature of love and memory -- but that's exactly what he did in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, going toe to toe with Kate Winslet in one of the most unusual and eye-catching films of the early aughts. Armed with a script co-written by Charlie Kaufman, director Michel Gondry riddles the film with stunning visual effects that, depending on what you want out of the movie, either deepen its metaphorical layers of meaning or are simply really cool to look at. It's admittedly too strange and/or chilly to appeal to everyone, but at its heart, the movie lives up to Mariko McDonald of Film Threat's assessment of it as "fresh, heartfelt and ultimately heartbreaking in its honest portrayal of a modern relationship."
Renny Harlin movies aren't exactly known for their character development, and 1996's Shane Black-scripted The Long Kiss Goodnight is no different -- in a movie this obsessed with rapid-fire quips, explosions, and piled-up corpses, you root for the good guys and cheer for the disposal of cartoon villains. Case in point: David Morse's Luke, a.k.a. Daedalus, an arms-dealing heavy who makes things difficult for the amnesiac CIA assassin played by Geena Davis -- first he's nasty, then he's dead. But if Goodnight isn't exactly thoughtful, or even particularly memorable, plenty of critics thought it was good, dumb fun -- like Michael Dequina of The Movie Report, who asked, "Who can resist the sight of Davis tossing her daughter from a hole in her house into the nearby treehouse or chasing after a car... while ice skating?"