Ideally I like to write my reviews shortly after I’ve watched a film, as I’m doing now. First impressions are important right? I think recording that instant reaction can be valuable, especially for readers dithering over whether to see something. Of course taking more time to chew over the substance of a movie can also have its advantages. It might help me to get my head round it and make some more insightful points. But somehow I don’t think I’ll ever get my head round Memento.
The protagonist of Memento, Leonard (Guy Pearce), certainly couldn’t make it as a film reviewer. And I’m not saying that because it’s a particularly difficult task with insurmountable challenges. In fact normally I’d take the view that anyone could do it and that’s what makes cinema so engaging in the first place. But Leonard is not just anyone. For him remembering the plot of the most transparent Hugh Grant picture would indeed be an insurmountable challenge. There’s an advertising slogan that reads “Impossible is nothing”: this is literally true in Memento. It would be impossible for Leonard to write a review because he would remember nothing about the film. Not even Hugh alternating between “gosh” and “golly”.
Leonard suffers from a rare condition which basically means he can’t form new memories. I say “basically” but if you watch Memento it’s rapidly clear that his day to day existence is not a simple matter. Repeatedly Leonard tells us, via voiceover or mysterious conversation, that through his mastery of routine, instinct and a system of writing down “facts” as they happen, he has conquered his inability to save memories to the mainframe of his brain. But as the story progresses things that seemed certain prove to be far from it. Leonard’s quest to find his wife’s killer, and the man who whacked the talent of remembering from his skull, gives even the most ordinary encounter life and death importance. If Leonard draws the wrong conclusion from something and writes it down for future reference, he could end up on a path that causes him to kill the wrong man.
With last year’s hit Inception, Christopher Nolan reminded us that before his skilled reinvention of Batman for the mainstream he had a reputation as an experimental narrative trickster. Inception was his first film since The Prestige, which had twists and turns aplenty in the plot, to tell a daring story free of the Gotham city universe. The hype for the “dream heist” thriller was hysterically huge. I and countless others positively salivated at the sound of the concept. The possibilities of such an idea were endless. Sadly the film is one of the most overrated of recent times. Whilst good it did not compete with the whirring of imaginations kick-started into life by the premise.
Memento is much better than Inception when it comes to realising a tantalising idea. This is despite the fact that Nolan’s relative inexperience as a director is evident in a handful of lacklustre shots; one drab and overlong focus of Pearce strutting away into a building stands out. The acting isn’t always brilliant either, with what seems like half the cast of The Matrix on show and in hit and miss form. The script however is superb, bouncing themes and tension around the scattered narrative structure. I was never bored. And I never knew what was going on.
As well as being extremely gripping and exciting, Memento has its other strong points. Leonard as a character is an engrossing figure, complete with those striking memories in tattoo form (which Steven Moffat recently adapted in Doctor Who for the monsters you forget when you look away). He is trying to make sense of his life, in one sense with nothing to go on but also with endless notes and information he’s amassed for himself. We’re all trying to settle on a purpose and the excess of notes could be an interesting symbol for information overload in the modern age. Clearly Memento has its insights on memory given the driving force of the story but it also comments on the nature of fact and perhaps the notion of history. Leonard insists he only collects facts and this ensures no one takes advantage of him. But his “facts” are manipulated. And what’s the point in revenge if he can’t remember it? Is it enough that “the world still exists when I close my eyes”, as he says?
Memento gave me a headache. I may have had one before sitting down to watch but after having the pieces inside my head jumbled about until my brain moaned in pain, it didn’t help matters. Nonetheless I enjoyed it. The overwhelming strength of the film is its originality. The execution was certainly there, which is why this was Nolan’s breakthrough picture. But the real genius lies with the idea behind the story. And the script was based on a short story by Christopher’s brother Jonathan Nolan. Perhaps he is the real mastermind behind the family’s success and the endless plaudits should be more evenly shared.
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The most stylish person in a room looks different to everyone else. Often the first step to style, the boldest move towards quality, is doing something different and distinctive. A lot of the time these risky moves will end in tears but some people just have the knack for it.
Three such people are directors Quentin Tarantino, Jason Reitman and Roman Polanski. Recently I’ve watched some of the best known, latest works of all of these men and it’s clear they’re endowed with the lucky gift of success when embracing the unconventional.
Firstly Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is such a fascinating, intriguing picture. Events within the plot and elements of the execution bear Tarantino’s sensational touch – leading Nazis weren’t slaughtered in reality in a cinema in Paris – but that does not mean there aren’t serious elements to this film too. On the surface it’s a simplified, warped version of history, with a non-existent band of American Jews exacting revenge for the Holocaust, which wasn’t widely known about until the discovery of death camps at the end of the conflict. But at the very least it’s a sumptuous exercise in the best of filmmaking and with its faithful use of various languages, does say something factual rather than fictionalised about the misunderstandings and deceptions of war. It’s also, somehow, hilarious.
As the film’s star Brad Pitt says in one of the interviews on the Blu-Ray disc, this film plays out more like a novel. It’s broken into chapters, the first handful of which establish the characters and the rest bring them together for an explosive, visually stunning finale. Only a few of these characters are typical and expected for the wartime context; the French farmer in the marvellous opening scene for example. But the rest are Tarantino creations. They’re extremely vivid and engaging but also wild, sometimes implausible extremes, almost as if plucked from the pages of a striking graphic novel. Somehow the director/writer makes them wonderfully believable and then gives them bags of room to play in his chapters, which often consist of one, long and extended scene.
The opening scene establishes the marvellous character of the “Jew hunter” played by Christoph Waltz. There are some splendid, picturesque shots of the French countryside, followed by a wonderfully tense dialogue scene indoors. The interrogative German is sinister through his politeness, only to reveal the true nature of his visit. Other scenes in the film get similar space to breathe and come to life, in particular another edge of the seat, tense encounter in a tavern. This is the film’s longest scene and is incredibly realistic and satisfying as the spies, including the wonderful Michael Fassbender, attempt not to blow their cover. Language again plays an important role, and does so throughout, becoming almost another character. Often Inglorious Basterds feels more like a play, only for some explosive action to remind you that only a film could deliver such thrills, laughs and intrigue. Ultimately the spot-on dialogue, lengthy scenes, exploration of language and sensational characters and events, is not only stylish but says something worthwhile about the war.
All of these films say something worthwhile. Juno chips in with messages about taking people at face value and what really makes relationships work, as well as challenging views of young people. And The Ghost, whilst being primarily an impressive exercise in storytelling rather than a substantive study of politics, does have some underlying messages about identity and ethics.
If you had one word to describe Juno, chances are it would be “quirky”. Anywhere you look online you’ll find this label plastered to the film’s witty face. Personally it seems an unfair, limiting term for such an intelligent, funny, well-acted production. But I guess it is undoubtedly true. Juno isn’t your average teenager. She’s witty, quick and cynical. She wasn’t used by some sex mad male but got knocked up by banging the best friend who’s crazy about her out of boredom. She sets about helping a deserving couple, rather than unthinkingly obliterating the fledgling life inside her.
The couple she decides to “donate” her child to are almost as important to the story as Juno. Played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, they are the grown-up heart of the film, the crucial counterpoint to Juno’s usually happy exuberance. All the cast deal superbly with fast, funny dialogue, including Juno herself, Ellen Page, as well as her Dad and Step-Mom, J.K. Simmons and Alison Janney. And of course the love that suddenly blossoms at the end with Michael Cera, is wonderfully touching and encompassed by the duet which ends the film.
Of all these films it’s The Ghost with the most stylistic flourishes, perhaps ironic given the everyman Brit accent adopted by Ewan McGregor. There are no jaw-dropping stunts in this film; all the drama comes from the story and suffocating, tense locations. When crucial, potentially stunning events occur in the plot, Polanski deals with them with the utmost style. The film starts by simply showing an abandoned car to heighten the mystery surrounding the death of the previous Ghost Writer, rather than showing a spectacular murder scene. At the climax of the film McGregor’s character is abruptly hit by a car out of shot; we only see papers scatter and swirl in the traffic, littering the street.
Rich in detail, in The Ghost we learn surprisingly little about anything ever. Polanski somehow captures the Dan Brown like, page-turning twists of the novel and distils them on film, whilst also adding a layer of intelligence to the swerves of the plot. You are gripped, determined to keep watching for the big reveal. A reveal cunningly disguised throughout and then stylishly unveiled with an anticipation building close-up of a gradually passed note. The Ghost is immensely enjoyable and stylish; I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
So filmmakers do something different, unpredictable and restrained if you want to make it big and be lavished with praise.
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