Memento


Memento

Do be wary when Guy Pearce wants to show you his vacation snapshots.

(2000) Mystery (Newmarket) Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Russ Fega, Jorja Fox, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harriet Ransom Harris, Thomas Lennon, Callum Keith Rennie, Kimberly Campbell, Marianne Muellerleile. Directed by Christopher Nolan

 

There is a yardstick I use with thrillers. The simpler they are, the better they work, but when it comes to plot twists, the bigger, the better.

Memento, directed by then-newcomer Christopher Nolan (who got  a lot of messages on his answering machines from major studios after this nifty little piece came out) has a plot device stunning in its simplicity. Leonard Shelby (Pearce) is unable to make new memories. He forgets where he is, what he’s doing, even what he just said a few minutes ago. It just fades away, like an Etch-a-Sketch on a pressure cooker.

However, his long-term memories are intact. He knows that in his previous life, he was a successful insurance investigator. He also knows that his wife was raped and murdered by someone he knows only as “John G.” However, in the attack on his wife, Leonard was smacked hard enough on the head to give him brain damage.

Leonard was able to shoot and kill the assailant of his wife. However, his injury happened after the shot was fired; therefore, there was a second person involved in the attack. However, the police don’t believe a brain-damaged man, and don’t think John G., whoever he was, was clever enough to erase all traces of his presence. Leonard uses his organizational skills honed from his years as an insurance fraud investigator which he has somehow retained, making notes to himself, taking Polaroids of those he is associating with, and tattooing particularly vital bits of information on his body so that unlike written notes, they can’t get lost or misplaced.

So Leonard is searching, but in a particularly smart bit of moviemaking, the story is told backwards, following Leonard’s torturous trek. He is assisted by Teddy (Pantoliano) and Natalie (Moss), two people who may or may not be trustworthy. As the story unfolds, we become as Leonard, lacking in critical information that explains the motivations of the characters involved but as the movie progresses, we see what happened in the past which explains what happened previously. Think of the film as 113 minute-long flashback. This movie would never work as well with a traditional linear storyline. It’s a gutsy move by Nolan, and it pays off.

I’m deliberately keeping plot details to a minimum. Because of the nature of the story, it’s best not to reveal too much. This is one of the smartest movies I’ve ever seen; it requires the viewer to pay attention, and it requires the viewer to think. In other words, if you’re looking for brainless summer fare, it’s best to keep moving down the list of rentals and/or streaming movies.

Pearce gives a low-key performance as Leonard. Up to that point he hadn’t really followed up his jaw-grinding performance in L.A. Confidential with anything noteworthy (don’t get me started on Ravenous or his phoned-in work on Rules of Engagement), finally makes a movie worthy of his talents. Moss, so memorable in The Matrix trilogy, is terrific again here in a role very different from Trinity.

Nolan is someone to keep an eye on. In many ways, this movie has the same kind of risk-taking that M. Night Shyalaman showed in The Sixth Sense. It’s that good, certainly one that will be appearing on a lot of year-end best lists. The final twist at the end is not the kind that will blow you right out of your seat, but it elegantly fits in with the various twists and turns the story has been taking throughout. If Alfred Hitchcock were alive today, this is the kind of movie he would be making. Higher praise for a movie I cannot sing.

WHY RENT THIS: Innovative story structure flawlessly executed. Fine performances from Pierce and Moss. A thinking person’s cinematic mystery.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Plot is a bit pedestrian and final twist isn’t particularly mind-blowing.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are plenty of bad words, a heaping helping of violence, a rape (although not graphically portrayed) and a brief scene of drug use.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The original DVD release included an IFC interview with Nolan, the short story that the movie was based upon (written by Nolan’s brother Jonathan)  and a feature illustrating how the clues in the film lined up. The Collector’s Edition DVD included these as well as a copy of the director’s shooting script and the ability to play the film in reverse order.  The original 2006 Blu-Ray edition contained none of these, oddly enough. Last year’s 10 year anniversary Blu-Ray release restored most of these features with the exception of the director’s shooting script and the ability to play the film in reverse; however it did add a new interview with Nolan about the film, a diagram of the tats on Leonard’s body as well as Leonard’s journal.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $37.9M on a $9M production budget; the movie was a modest hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rear Window

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Alex Cross

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Agora


Agora

Rachel Weisz is looking forward to her first toga party.

(2009) Historical Drama (Newmarket) Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Ashraf Barhom, Michael Lonsdale, Rupert Evans, Homayoun Ershadi, Sammy Samir, Richard Durden, Omar Mostafa, Manuel Cauchi, Oshri Cohen. Directed by Alejandro Amenabar

 

As the saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It is particularly dangerous when knowledge is at odds with religious fundamentalism. When a society becomes dominated by religion, knowledge becomes heresy and those who seek knowledge become heretics. That’s a perilous place to be.

Hypatia (Weisz) is a noblewoman of Alexandria in the 4th century. The daughter of Theon (Lonsdale), curator of the great library of Alexandria, she teaches at the Platonist school at the Library; while she also teaches philosophy and mathematics, it is astronomy and physics that are her passions. Her pupils Orestes (Isaac) and Synesius (Evans) would dearly like to become her passion, as would her slave Davus (Minghella). Hypatia rejects them all, preferring to channel her energies into discovery rather than into pleasing a man.

While Hypatia is a pagan (as the leaders of Alexandria were at the time), the growing cult of Christianity is becoming more and more aggressive. When pagan statues are vandalized, a group of pagans (including Theon and Orestes) go to teach the Christians a lesson in savagery. Unfortunately for them, they discover that there are far more Christians than they at first thought and whipped up into a frenzy by the street preacher Ammonius (Barhom), the Christian thugs (known as the parabolani) lay siege to the library itself. Saving the precious scrolls from destruction is just the beginning of the ordeal for Hypatia as the balance of power shifts and the search for enlightenment comes into direct conflict with dogmatic faith.

The sweep and scope of Agora matches any historical epic, from Quo Vadis to Ben-Hur and even up to the CGI-infused epics of today like Troy. Agora benefits from marvelous set design, mostly done in Malta where Gladiator was filmed and utilizing many of those who built the sets for that movie. However, this isn’t just war and blood, guts and glory – there are ideas here, a debate of faith vs. knowledge (and Amenabar sides firmly with the latter).

There are those who criticized the movie as being anti-Christian but I didn’t see it. I think Amenabar’s stance is, if anything, anti-intolerance. He also has history on his side – the library was destroyed by a Christian mob, and Christians did murder certain historical figures in the story as depicted. That’s not being anti-Christian, it’s being pro-fact.

Weisz brings dignity and elegance to the part of Hypatia. The historical Hypatia we know mostly through the descriptions of historians, most of which are admiring of her intellect. For the purposes of the movie, a lot of blanks had to be filled in and Weisz does so in a way that makes sense with what we know of the historical Hypatia, making her human and charming, but also devoted to the search for knowledge which would inevitably bring her into conflict with those who felt that knowledge should be best left alone.

The movie wound up not doing well here in the States, struggling to get distribution and then not getting a very wide release. While it was the highest-grossing movie in Spain when it was released there (and won several Spanish Oscar-equivalents), the high production costs made it very difficult for this movie to become popular and subsequently made it disregarded in some quarters. That’s a shame too – this is a movie with something to say and a passion for its subject. Besides, a historical epic done this well is exceedingly rare and as such should be treasured when one comes out. It might be too cerebral for some but personally I think a little knowledge is a good thing. Does that make me dangerous?

WHY RENT THIS: A sword and sandals film that puts ideas at the forefront. Weisz plays Hypatia with dignity and restraint..   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Religious sorts may find the movie’s condemnation of fanaticism and fundamentalism disturbing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and implied nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amenabar wrote the movie with Weisz in mind to play the lead.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: As part of the “making of” featurette there is a segment on the historical background of the movie which is fascinating.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39.0M on a $70M production budget; sadly, the movie was a box office failure.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Another Year

Creation (2009)


Creation

Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany pray for bigger audiences on cable.

(2009) Historical Drama (Newmarket) Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly, Jeremy Northam, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martha West, Jim Carter, Zak Davies, Freya Parks, Robert Glenister, Bill Paterson, Harrison Sansostri, Ellie Haddington. Directed by Jon Amiel

There is little doubt that one of the most important – and controversial – scientific findings ever is Charles Darwin’s theory of Evolution. It called into question some of the most deeply-held tenets of the Bible – the story of creation – and put in a rational, logical sense of reason into a subject that had always been to that time more faith-related. Putting pen to paper and telling the world of his ideas would take an enormous toll on Darwin the man.

Darwin (Bettany) is a family man, married to first cousin Emma Wedgwood (Connelly) with ten lovely children to keep him busy. One in particular – 10-year-old Anne (West) – is the apple of his eye, an outgoing, inquisitive soul who seems to be the closest to his own heart. However, she contracts a disease (Scarlet Fever or tuberculosis depending on which account you believe) and despite Darwin’s heroic efforts, taking her to the seaside for a “water cure,” little Anne passes away.

This devastates Charles and Emma both. They both cope with their grief in different ways. For Charles, his unanswered entreaties to the Almighty are proof positive that there is no God, for how could a being as advanced and compassionate as all that allow a child to die such a horrible death. For the deeply religious Emma, it only deepens her faith, knowing that her precious child is in the bosom of heaven with the angels.

This causes no little strain on their marriage as you might imagine, and the once-robust Charles is beset by illnesses of the digestion, hallucinations and fatigue. It has been 15 years since his voyage to the Galapagos Islands on the H.M.S. Beagle but he is still having difficulty writing the ground-breaking treatise that would become “On the Origin of Species.” Friends like Thomas Huxley (Jones) and Joseph Hooker (Cumberbatch) urge him to finish his work while the Rev. John Brodie-Innes (Northam), a close friend and confidante of his wife, is troubled by its implications. Huxley, almost gleefully, exclaims “Congratulations sir, you have killed God!” which further troubles Darwin.

He is fully aware of the ramifications of his treatise and even more aware of what it will mean to his wife and his marriage. Emma is terrified that by publishing his work, Charles will be damned to Hell and be separated from her and his children for all eternity.

Of course we know that he did eventually publish his work and that it did create a firestorm of controversy, so the actual publication of the work is not in doubt even if the filmmakers have a tendency to make it a point of suspense. However, it is not so much Darwin’s theories that are on display here (although there are some nice animation sequences used to explain the concepts) so much as Darwin the man.

As such, a heavy burden falls upon Bettany to carry the story and he is more than up to the task. Bettany has impressed me over the years with his ability to take on a wide range of roles, from villain to action hero to mild-mannered academic as he is here. He imbues Darwin with a decency and gentleness that humanizes the nearly-mythological figure who often is castigated for being godless. Darwin was far from godless; he was a believer for at least a portion of his life, but his belief system shifted elsewhere.

Connelly is given the difficult task of taking a rigid and inflexible person and making her likable, but she possesses the skills to accomplish just that. This isn’t a glamorous role and Connelly, who is one of the most beautiful women in the world might have easily passed on something like this, but to her credit took it on and conquered it. Emma can be dogmatic at times, but there is no doubt that she possesses a fierce devotion to husband and family. Despite her misgivings, she comes to understand that if her husband doesn’t publish his work, someone else will eventually reach the same conclusions as he (which Alfred Russel Wallace did – it is a letter from that scientist that eventually prodded Darwin into completing his work) and in the end she supports him.

Amiel directs this at a stately pace and if at times it gets a little bit overly-contemplative, that can be forgiven. This isn’t an action film to say the least, and there are some big concepts involved that deserve some conversation.

It is a testament to how Darwin’s work continues to be a source of controversy to the religious right that the film had difficulty in picking up distribution in America, at last falling to Newmarket which had a hit a few years back with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. This isn’t going to change your mind about religion or evolution but it might give you some insight as to the man who brought evolution into our collective midst, and the personal demons he had to face down in order to do it. This is the kind of solid film that won’t let you down if you choose to rent it for an evening’s viewing.

WHY RENT THIS: A sober and even-keeled examination of Darwin the man. Bettany and Connelly bring humanity to roles that are difficult at best.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly slow in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie deals with grief as well as religious faith, subject matter which might be difficult for younger folk to follow.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a biography of Darwin by noted author Randal Keynes, who is Darwin’s great-great-grandson.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a surprising amount. Several featurettes look into the life and times of Darwin, visit his home (which is a museum today) and participate in the debate that Darwin’s work engendered.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $896,298 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Assassination of a High School President

The Way Back


The Way Back

Jim Sturgess wonders if there's anybody behind him. Unfortunately, nobody is.

(2011) Adventure (Newmarket) Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoise Ronan, Mark Strong, Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, Sally Edwards, Gustaf Skarsgard, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Zahary Baharov. Directed by Peter Weir

It’s not the destination, I’ve been known to opine, but the journey. Never has that been more true than in this movie.

Janusz is a Polish cavalry office in occupied Poland. Part of the country is run by the Nazis, the other by Soviet Russia. Janusz is in the latter portion. He is accused of criticizing the Stalinist regime. His wife (Edwards) is forced to testify against him and he is sent to a Siberian gulag.

Here he meets Khabarov (Strong), an actor thrown in the Gulag for portraying a Russian aristocrat too well. He claims to have an escape plan, but later turns out to be a fraud that preys on the hopes of others. However, his information sets in motion a daring escape.

Participating are Kazhik (Urzendowsky), Tomasz (Potocean) and Voss (Skarsgard), fellow Poles as well as Valka (Farrell), a Russian mobster and Mr. Smith (Harris), a taciturn American. The lot of them travels into the harsh Siberian wilderness, picking up an orphan named Irena (Ronan) along the route.

They are pushed to the limits, often without food or water as they pass into Mongolia, cross the Gobi desert into Tibet and then at last must cross the Himalayas into India to finally find freedom. It is an amazing journey that not all of them will survive.

This is inspired by a book by a Polish soldier that is reputedly a true story, although the veracity of it has been called into question recently. While some claim that the author took events that happened to other people and claimed them for his own, there is also a fairly sizable contingent who believe he made up events out of whole cloth. It is nearly certain that Slavomir Rawicz did not make the journey he depicted in the book; recent documents unearthed in Russia confirm this, including some authored by Rawicz himself.

Still, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. There is certainly an epic sweep to the story, a grandeur that populates most grand adventures, and the sort that are rarely undertaken anymore. These men (and one lady) are pushed to walk 4,000 km because they have to. Could it have happened? Yes.

Director Peter Weir has some movies on his resume that will withstand the test of time (The Year of Living Dangerously, Picnic at Hanging Rock) but this is his first movie in seven years (Master and Commandeer: The Far Side of the World was the last movie that saw him in the director’s chair) which is nothing new; he only made three movies during the ‘90s and only one in the decade that followed. He may not be prolific but the quality is usually there.

 He undertakes to make a movie that is both epic in scope and personal in nature, but only succeeds in the former aspect.  The cinematography from landscapes in Bulgaria, Morocco and India is nothing short of breathtaking thanks to cinematographer Russell Boyd. They travel through extremes of heat and cold, with issues of hunger and thirst thrown in; and even a wolf attack to boot. This isn’t a stroll through meadows.

Sturgess makes an appealing hero. His optimism and determination fuels the entire journey. He is in many ways the most human but he is also the most distant. That determination which is in him isn’t fully explained until near the end, and even then he never seems to connect emotionally to anyone. That makes it harder for the audience to connect to him.

Farrell does an impressive job as Valka, the Russian criminal with the knife he calls Wolf but who turns out to be a bit of a blowhard. Janusz is often warned that Valka is the devil and he can’t be trusted but you never get a sense that he’s untrustworthy. It’s an interesting performance that captures a very complex man.

The character that stayed with me the most is Mr. Smith, Harris’ American. He is a bit of a loner, suffering from guilt and loss. He tries to keep the world at bay but his own inner humanity keeps getting in the way. Harris is the kind of actor that brings a certain human touch to his every performance, makin his characters accessible and relatable. Smith begins to display fatherly tendencies towards both Janusz and Irena; the character really blossoms then. Ronan has such ethereal features she looks almost other-worldly. This is a difficult role but she makes it look easy – I get the sense that she is about to break into major stardom.

However, we have to keep in mind that this is essentially a movie about a long walk. There’s only so much you can do with that. Yes, they are walking through desolate places that have their own beauty in their emptiness, but after awhile even beautiful images aren’t enough. They’re supposed to be chased by the Soviets and are trying to avoid contact with the villagers because they know there’s a bounty on their heads, but you never get a sense of danger of imminent re-capture.

No, the danger is that starvation and exposure will do them in and Weir concentrates on that. The imagery is pretty stark and graphic, and not for the squeamish. The exposure to sunstroke is portrayed in a very direct manner, and some may find this unsettling. Still, without the tension of being hunted the movie is harrowing, but not exciting. It’s well made, well acted (despite having a cast of interchangeable bearded Poles) and good looking but ultimately it didn’t move me the way it should have. When you consider this is supposed to be a movie about the triumph of the human spirit, you would think I would feel uplifted but rather, I just felt like I’d endured a long, grueling walk.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed, excellent work by Sturgess, Harris and Farrell. Ronan is ethereal and looks ready to break out career-wise.

REASONS TO STAY: Movie drags and could have been shortened a good 15-20 minutes.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, images of hardship and ordeal, other disturbing images of death and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ronan turned 16 during filming. 

HOME OR THEATER: The big vistas of desert, mountain and forest should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Edge of Darkness