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

Seven Pounds


Seven Pounds

An idyllic picnic with Rosario Dawson, Will Smith and behemoth.

(Columbia) Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Michael Ealy, Barry Pepper, Elpidia Carillo, Robinne Lee, Joe Nunez, Bill Smitrovich. Directed by Gabrielle Muccino

We all must shoulder the burden of the responsibility for our own actions. When those actions lead to terrible consequences, we might come to the conclusion that those consequences deserve terrible responsibilities.

Ben Thomas (Smith) is an IRS agent who, on first glance, isn’t a terribly nice guy. He badgers a blind customer service operator named Ezra (Harrelson) on the phone to the point of cruelty. He is curt, grumpy and often condescending to people. His relationship with his brother (Ealy) has gone into the dumpster, which mystifies the brother; why does Ben want to keep his family at arm’s length that way?

Ben does a lot of things that don’t make a lot of sense. He is investigating the finances of a nursing home operator, and then punches him in order to get an elderly woman her bath. He follows Ezra into a bar, striking up a civil conversation with him. He inserts himself into the lives of people with health and relationship problems, and seems to be falling for one of them, a beautiful woman with a heart that is slowly ticking down to its last beat named Emily Posa (Dawson). His best friend Dan (Pepper) owes him a favor, one that Dan is reluctant to repay but that Ben insists that he does. He apparently owns a beautiful multi-million dollar beach house but has checked into a seedy motel. You find yourself wondering why Ben does the things he does.

To tell you too much about the plot would be to ruin the movie for you. Suffice to say that Ben has plenty of reasons for doing the things he does and that his master plan, hinted at throughout the movie, resolves itself in the final minutes of the film.

For Will Smith, this is one of the finest performances of his career. Reunited with director Muccino, who got another great performance out of Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness, Smith plays a character that is deeply wounded, highly intelligent, highly driven and very compassionate, sometimes all at once. He can snap and snarl in one moment and be pulling weeds and fixing an antique printing press in the next. He has an engineering degree from MIT, but has the charisma to be a motivational speaker. There are a lot of layers to this character and Smith brings them all together in one believable package. Of course, Smith is so likable an actor that he can make his audience relate to him and root for him even when he is being unlikable. Not many can pull that off.

Dawson, his love interest in Men in Black II, returns to fill the same role here and she also does some of her finest work. She plays a woman living with a death sentence, knowing that the odds are long that she’ll be able to survive long enough to get a heart transplant from a donor with the same rare blood type as she has. She manages to remain upbeat most of the time, although she has her moments of despair. She is articulate, creative and beautiful, in nearly every way the perfect woman which makes Ben’s reluctance to let her in all the more puzzling until the final reel.

This is not always an easy movie to watch – there are some scenes in which raw emotions are laid bare, and others in which there are some very disturbing images. Much of this movie is about redemption although not in the way we usually think about it. Again, I’m being deliberately vague not to ruin the power that the movie has.

There are a few plot points that require us to be a little more trusting of the writers than perhaps we should be – some of the plot points wrap up certain elements neatly but defy logic when examined closely. We have to assume that Ben did the research to justify his actions before carrying them out, otherwise some of his attempts to help people may have turned bad in the long run.

Be that as it may, this is a movie that makes you think about how far you would go to make amends for your actions. I have an inkling of the burden Ben Thomas lives with because I was involved with a similar incident to the one that sends Ben on his journey, and in all honesty I had many of the same impulses he did, although not the resources to carry them out. I do, however, understand what guilt can do to a person – and perhaps that’s why I loved this movie as much as I did. It’s outstanding, with a performance by Will Smith that by itself is worth checking the movie out for, but it’s the themes of the movie that kept it in my memory long after the film was over.

WHY RENT THIS: A serious and sober look at how men deal with trauma, responsibility and loss. Smith is fabulous in the role.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The last scene is a little treacly, and some of the plot points require a whole lot of suspension of disbelief.

FAMILY VALUES: The content is definitely on the adult side so you may want to watch this with your smaller kids. There are a couple of disturbing scenes and a little bit of sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Travel Inn that Ben Thomas stays in during the movie is the same one used in the movie Memento.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes on box jellyfish and on antique printing presses like the one Ben refurbishes for Emily.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Hotel for Dogs