Memento

  • Title: Memento
  • Director:  Christopher Nolan
  • Date:  2000
  • Studio:  Newmarket Capital Group, Summit Entertainment, Columbia-Tristar (distributor)
  • Genre:  Suspense
  • Cast:  Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Callum Keith Rennie
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“That must suck. It’s all backwards. I mean, like, maybe you’ve got an idea about what you want to do next, but you can’t remember what you just did.” – Hotel Clerk

“I’m disciplined and organized. I use habit and routine to make my life possible.” – Leonard

Memento is a remarkable movie, because it uses a structure that I don’t think any other film has used. The film is told backwards. It’s also unusual in that there are two films in one. The main story, in color, has each scene taking place immediately before the scene that precedes it. The backing story, in black and white, does move forward in time and is almost a commentary on the other scenes. It also serves to orient the viewer some in any areas that might be really confusing.

The first time I saw Memento, I knew going in that the film would be told backwards – it is what it’s famous for. And even though the film is a little confusing at first, one quickly becomes used to the idea – and it really isn’t as confusing as you might think. The structure forces the viewer to pay close attention to what is happening in the film. The structure also really, really puts an emphasis on editing. And as you watch the film, you end up mentally re-ordering the scenes to put them in context.

However, the structure also emphasizes the character and his point of view. The main character, Leonard (Guy Pearce), is suffering from retrograde amnesia. That is, due to a trauma (we’re told) he can remember his life before the trauma, but he can’t make new memories. Leonard’s life exists in the brief span of a scene, the minute he loses focus, or falls asleep, he forgets everything that’s happened to him. The highly unusual structure, of telling the story backwards, emphasizes this – if you haven’t seen the movie before, you don’t know what happened before either. Therefore when Leonard finds himself chasing a guy – or as he quickly realizes – being chased by a guy with a gun, the audience also has no idea why.

Upon viewing the film a second time, the structure still works. Because the film is told in reverse order, it’s hard to remember individual scenes – so one is, for example, still confused as to why Leonard’s being chased. I was surprised when I watched the film a second time, that the structure still worked and the film isn’t a one hit wonder. I knew the big secret from the end of the film, of course, which I’m not going to reveal in this review. Memento still works as a film even on a second viewing.

Memento is also a film that has a timeless look to it. It’s a story told in cheap hotels, dive bars, and abandoned buildings. Even the one home we see (Natalie’s), although nice, is incredibly nondescript. The anonymous places accentuate Leonard’s situation.

However, Memento is, at it’s center a disturbing film – not because of it’s unique structure, which the viewer quickly gets used to, but because of the Big Secret at the end of the film, The end, which is really the beginning when you think about it. I don’t want to spoil that for movie viewers who haven’t seen it, but once you know, it changes how you view the film. And probably not in the way you think.

Recommendation:  See it! I would especially recommend this movie to film students.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Inception

  • Title:  Inception
  • Director:  Christopher Nolan
  • Date:  2010
  • Studio:  Warner Brothers
  • Genre:  SF, Action, Suspense
  • Cast:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“What is the most resilient parasite?  A bacteria, a virus, an intestinal worm? … An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold in the brain – it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed, fully understood, that sticks.”  – Cobb

“Do you want to take a leap of faith? Or become an old man – filled with regret, waiting to die alone?” – Saito

“It’s the chance to build cathedrals, entire cities, things that never existed, things that couldn’t exist in the real world.” – Cobb

Inception is a film about dreams, but it is not the typical film about dreams – such as the person who dreams of being a famous musician then becomes one, or the young man who dreams of becoming a professional sports player – then makes his dream come true.  This film is literally about dreams, and as such, the entire film is a commentary on films themselves.  But for all the meta implications, it’s not a nod-nod-wink-wink type of film that pokes fun at anything.  Rather it suggests a type of caper film, though the caper doesn’t take place in the physical world at all.

Cobb (DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are professional extractors – men who, for a price, will enter a person’s dreams to steal information, often as a form of corporate espionage. However, in this case, when their plans don’t quite work out, the man they are trying to steal from instead hires the two for Inception – the concept of planting an idea in someone’s head, so that they themselves believe that they came up with the idea – themselves.  Like many other caper films, after some debate among themselves, Cobb and Arthur agree to perform the crime – Arthur, because he knows the corporation that hired them in the first place will kill them for being unsuccessful, and Cobb because he’s a wanted man – and Saito has promised to make his charges go away so he can return home and to his own children, if he’s successful.

Cobb and Arthur to find their crew for this special job:  a chemist – to create a special sedative to put the victim under during the crime, Eames – a spy and con-man – to gather information on the victim, an architect – to build the triple-layered dream world, Arthur, and Cobb.  Their architect is Ariadne, a young student of Miles – Cobb’s old teacher, and the grandfather of his children – Phillipa and James.  Arthur and Cobb train Ariadne in shared dreaming.  Cobb finds the chemist and an old friend who becomes their spy and investigator.

The “heist” involves getting Fischer – the victim – on a ten hour flight, slipping him a mickey, then entering his dreams.  The dream will be three layers or levels deep, and at each stage, the crew – specifically Cobb and Arthur (with some assistance from Eames) work different angles into their con to convince Fischer Jr that he should break-up and sell his father’s near monopoly energy company so he can become his own man by building something new.  In the end, Cobb and Ariadne end-up going to a fourth level – Limbo, or the subconscious – for two reasons, for Saito – who was shot in the first level of the dream, then died in the third level (normally dying in a dream would wake up the dreamer – but not when under sedation) and so Cobb can confront his dead wife, Mal – who’s been haunting him throughout the film.  In fact, as the film goes on – it becomes less about the plot to convince Fischer Jr to break-up his father’s company, and more about the question of Mal and Cobb and just what happened between them.

Inception is also circular in nature. The film opens with Cobb washed up on a beach, captured by Asian gunmen, and taken to a wealthy, older Asian man. We will learn this is Saito, who has lived for years in his subconscious world, because time moves differently in the dream world as to the real world. The film, at the end circles back to Cobb on the beach, and Cobb confronting the Asian man. But then the film adds a couple of scenes at the end that leave the film mysterious and open-ended.

The second major point about the film, Inception, and the reason I can watch it over and over again, is it is visually stunning.  Where else would you see roads folding in on themselves? An endless staircase? A freight train moving through a crowded downtown city street? Or the vanishing point of a set being revealed as a mirror, then being moved by a character to form an infinity box?  Yet these impossible scenes, rather than breaking the fourth wall in the traditional sense, are used to clearly show that a particular moment which seemed “real” is actually part of a dream – so they fit into the larger world of the film.  It is truly a visual masterpiece of film.

Recommendation:  Must see!
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Memento

The Prestige

  • Title:  The Prestige
  • Director:  Christopher Nolan
  • Date 2006
  • Studio:  Touchstone, Warner Brothers
  • Genres:  Drama, SF, Historical
  • Cast:  Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie, Andy Serkis, Mark Ryan, William Morgan Sheppard
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  Blu-Ray, R1

“But you wouldn’t clap yet, because making something disappear isn’t enough, you have to bring it back.  That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call… The Prestige.” – Mr. Cutter, narrating

“I love you.” – Alfred Borden
“Not today.  Well, some days it’s not true, and today you don’t mean it.  Maybe today you’re more in love with magic than me.  I like being able to tell the difference, it makes the days it is true mean something.” – Sarah Borden

“I don’t want to kill doves.” – Robert Angier
“Then stay off stage.  You’re a magician not a wizard.  You gotta’ get your hands dirty if you’re going to achieve the impossible.” – Mr. Cutter

“I can recognize an obsession, no good will come of it.” – Nikola Tesla

“The truly extra-ordinary is not permitted in science and industry.  Perhaps, you’ll find more luck in your field – where people are happy to be mystified.” – Tesla

The Prestige is a film about envy, jealousy, and obsession. But rather than jealousy over someone else’s relationship with a third person; or obsession with a person, The Prestige is about professional jealousy and obsession with an idea. Add to that it’s unusual structure, and it’s a fascinating film, that’s intriguing to watch.

This is the story of two stage magicians in the 1890s. They start off as friends, working with an ingenue (or magic trick designer) and a female magician (Julia, played by Piper Perabo) who is married to one of them (Angiers, played by Hugh Jackman). Bordan (Bale) seems to be jealous of Angiers relationship with his wife, though this is not obviously stated. And when Julia dies performing a water-tank trick, after Bordan tied her hands – Angiers becomes angry and blames Bordan for the accident. However, this definitely doesn’t become your cut-and-dried “you killed my wife – I’m going to get revenge” film. Even by the end of the film, we don’t really know if Bordan deliberately tied the wrong knot or if it really was an accident. However, the death of Julia is the spark that turns a friendship into a rivalry – and then into professional jealousy, and finally into obsession. As the film unfolds Angiers and Bordan both one-up each other, and both simply do horrible things to each other – physically harming each other, undercutting each other’s stage acts, and simply just not letting the rivalry rest but escalating it with each act of the film.

The structure of the film is also different.  It starts with the end, then tells the story through a series of interweaving flashbacks that tell the story in short scenes that not only move forward and back in time, but change point of view as well. The film begins with Angiers dying in a stage magician’s trick and Bordan being arrested and charged with his murder. The flashbacks explain their history, their rivalry, and Angiers growing obsession with Bordan’s trick:  The Transported Man. Angiers follows his obsession to Colorado where he meets Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) and his assistant Alley (Andy Serkis), and convinces them to build a special machine for him. Angiers both gets what he wants and gets much more than he bargained for. But, as the story unfolds – and different parts of the story are told first from Angiers point of view and then from Bordan’s, the audience learns more and more about these characters – the doomed characters.

Because the flashbacks are interweaving, as an audience member, not only is one forced to pay very close attention in order to follow the film – but one is also, constantly rearranging the scenes in one’s head. Especially the first time I watched this film, as I watched it, I found myself thinking, “OK, so this goes before that, and this goes before that, etc.”  But unlike other films with a lot of editing and scenes that aren’t presented in chronological order – with The Prestige, that the film’s story is essentially presented in reverse order before returning to the present and then again turning on a dime, everything in the story is crystal clear.  You will not be confused by the story – at all, once you get used to the style and concentrate on the plot.

I’m determined to not spoil this excellent film, but it is also very dark and even somewhat disturbing. To explain just what is going on, and how, would destroy the experience of seeing this film.  It’s excellent, with an excellent cast, incredible direction, and it’s very thought-provoking. However, it is very, very dark.  I mean, I’ve seen film noir before, but the final implications of this film really push the envelope into disturbing territory. Oh, and by disturbing – I do not in any way mean “gross” or bloody, or any of the typical tropes of horror. I wouldn’t even call this a horror film. Do not avoid this film simply because of a prejudice against horror – that is not what it is at all.

Recommendation:   See it
Rating:  5 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Inception

Batman – A Story in Imagery

Batman – A Story in Imagery

I loved the three Christopher Nolan directed Batman films:  Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises.  After seeing The Dark Knight Rises trailers but before seeing the film, what really struck me, was the use of imagery.  I’ve been a fan of comics, especially Batman for a long time. I recently read several DC graphic novels in an attempt to catch-up on Final Crisis. But even years ago when I was spending upwards of $10.00/week on comics — it was the storylines and the characters I loved.  The art always came second for me.  Now, I’d guess most fans of graphic art, would say the opposite, or that they needed good art and a good story.  But, for me, yeah, at times I noticed a particularly nice piece of art in a (comic) book or a graphic novel, but over all — I just read the story.

However, when I think about the character of Batman — it’s images that immediately spring to mind. Batman with one knee down, the other up, clutching the broken, bleeding, beaten body of Robin (Jason Todd), his head bowed, in the rain — from A Death in the Family.

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There’s the classic image of  young Bruce kneeling in blood of his dead parents.

Frank Miller

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Christopher Nolan – Batman Begins

It’s always a static image.

Even Final Crisis had the image of a dead Batman, Superman holding his body on the cover (an image which isn’t in the book, btw).

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 And Long Shadows tells a compelling story in both images and words: Superman and Wonder Woman presenting the empty cape and cowl to Alfred.

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Clark, Diana, Alfred, Dick, and Robin — all standing in a circle, their heads bowed in mourning and sorrow.

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Dick, sitting in a chair, loose and almost side saddle, in the Batman uniform but with the cowl off, looking completely bereft.  And that’s followed with a conversation between him and Alfred where Dick says (something like), “I always knew he would die.  But I wasn’t ready for it to be this soon.”  Not to mention my favorite line in the book, which is when Alfred, who’s to the point of tears, says to Clark, “Am I all right? No sir, I am not.  My son has died.”  Over and over, Long Shadows in particular stresses the emotional toil of loss for Alfred, Dick Grayson, and those who knew Bruce Wayne best.

Still, it is the images that are striking in the Batman universe.  Nolan’s films, with their film noir look, or even the apocalyptic images of The Dark Knight Rises, are, even in motion picture terms, surprisingly for action films, at that, often, when you think of them – still images.  Nolan even often has the sound disappear and uses only the soundtrack to convey the emotion of a scene or image in the films.