DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of Memento, Insomnia, Unknown, The Lookout, First Snow; The Dead, Wristcutters: A Love Story, The Matador, Grosse Pointe Blank, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Title:  Memento

Release Date:  2001

Nationality and Language:  USA, English

Running time:

MPAA Rating:

Distributor and Production Company: New Market Films

Director; Writer: Christopher Nolan

Producer:

Cast:   Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano

Technical:  full wide screen

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site:  screenwriting technique

 

Memento (2001) was presented at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, though not here in Minnesota until commercial release.  The distributor, New Market Films, has been relatively little noticed until now. The film, however “amateur” is stunning in its concept, script, and sound and photography, that includes digital stereo, wide screen, and a mesmerizing music score.  The director is Christopher Nolan. The everyman hero, Leonard Shelby, is played by an ascetic and hungry looking Guy Pearce (he resembles Brad Pitt). Is his short term memory loss (inability to make new memories) really the result of an injury at his wife’s murder or a symptom of something deeper that is wrong in his character?  The film works backwards in flashbacks, including a fascinating history of his career as an insurance claims adjuster and his investigation of a similar memory disorder claim in another family with (as in how own) a female diabetic wife.  Some of the scenes are graphic in a personal way: the tattooing and body shaving, and the insulin injections (Hitchcock style) in the flashbacks.  His reminder notes are tattooed over his body and written on scraps of paper around his Discount Motel room (like, “shave left thigh” and “never answer the phone”).  Is this a game he his playing with himself by standing outside of himself as a third person?  I’ll bet that Disney, AOL, and Sony are all wishing they had distributed this one. This is going to be a cult classic for years.

NewMarket distribution was apparently formed to distribute this film.

In 2002, Christopher Nolan directed Insomnia for Warner Borthers (Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, David Kapps) in which a LA detective (Pacino) has to fight off skeletons in his own closet (while doing without sleep during the arctic summer solstice in Alaska) while solving a murder of a teenager in Alaska. For example, he shoots a partner in an attempt to apprehend a suspect in a cabin. Later, a mysterious author Walter Finch (Robin Williams) complicated the mystery with his own story and own motives. The constant twilight and scenery are stunning.   

Unknown (2006, IFC/The Weinstein Company, dir. Simon Brand, wr. Matthew Waynee, 98 min, NR but would be PG-13 (or a soft R, USA). At first glance, this film seems like a comparison to "Memento," but the concept is more complicated and the payoff is indeed a gimmick. Five men wake up in a warehouse in the Mojave Desert (maybe near Ontario) and can't remember who they are. They have been gassed, chained in various ways, and locked in. Why is it so secure, when the warehouse has nothing but junk? (I've seen people's own garages like this.) That's a tip off, and the plot will not be the same as "Saw", as there is no jigsaw terrorist outside. (Actually, the outside terrorist concept could have political possibilities that no one has explored with this setup, but this film does not go there.) The men have to bond (a little military unit cohesion) but quickly realize there are friends and enemies. The movie starts showing their pre-crime memories backwards in time, and then we see the police watching them, trying to find them (somehow GPS isn't working for them).  Okay, this can be an inside job, someone trying to commit a murder and even wind up with someone's girl (you can find this out with other discussion boards on the Internet so I don't mind giving it away). If you think of the movie as a dinner theater  game or a form of "Clue" or "Mr. Ree" (or even Parker Brother's) it can make some sense. But you really don't bond with the characters too much (even given the fact that one of the characters has to remember whether he is "good" or "evil" -- the secondary gimmick) so it is hard to care about the payoff (whereas in Memento, the bonding is clear.)   In one of my scripts, I do something a bit like this with a 50s game called "Star Reporter" and I wonder if the mapping in my own story is clear enough, having seen a concept like this in this movie and finding it a bit bemusing. I'd like to find the original spec script of this. The concept seems tight in execution, but I bet the original would be hard to read. The title of the movie also reminds me of college chemistry, when we had lab "unknowns." James Caviezel, Greg Kinnear, Joe Pontaliano, Jeremy Sisto, Barry Pepper, Peter Stomare, Bridget Moynahan. An A-list cast for a small film (under $4 million), which looks very sharp technically, in Scope and with some nice desert scenery to relieve one from the warehouse.  (I noticed TWC, but no MGM Lion; in fact, this film looks more like a "typical" Lions Gate film. I expect that MGM, cat included, will pick up the DVD, which should have some deleted scenes and extras.)   

The Lookout (2007, Miramax/Spyglass, dir. and wr. Scott Frank, 100 min, Canada, R). There is one good reason at the outset to find this little movie, which is not so little, in fact, with snowy midwestern landscapes looking big in Scope. That is, enigmatic Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He is always the wiry kid saving himself and others. And here, we throw in some lot ideas from Nolan's films, especially Memento. Levitt plays Chris Pratt (oddly enough, the name of a Minnesota actor who plays Bright in Everwood), once a promising hockey player, but suffering serious head injuries a few years back when colliding with a columbine after joyriding with other kids to the light of fireflies. Now, he writes notes to himself, in simple words, and gets things out of sequence. He attends a Life Skills education center in Kansas City and is slowly rebuilding a life. He takes a job as a janitor in a small town bank in Noel, Kansas. He asks the owner to give him the chance to become a teller, and talks, convincingly in his own broken prose, that good tellers always balance the register for years without a single mistake (bartenders tell me that they can, blindfold). That's because he can focus on repetition. Other things are sad. He used to be strong at chess, and now says he can't play any more, when he loses to his father to a simple queen sacrifice. (By the way, there is a controversial new queen sacrifice in an offbeat line in the Sicilian!)  He befrinds a blind man (Jeff Daniels), who once says he looked at the sun too long, and then admits that he was blinded by meth. And a potential bad influence is Gary Spargo, played by another young aspiring actor, Matthew Goode -- who recruits him to become the lookout man for a bank heist.

Here, Chris's moral nature must get him out of it, as Gordon-Levitt's characters do in his other films (Brick, Mysterious Skin).  He manages to escape a shootout with the money, and then he brags, over the phone, "I have the power!"  Yet, he will turn out to be the good guy, who does not have to be punished (other than, of course, by his injuries) for prosecutable acts.  The screenplay moves and advances the story quickly, anchoring the movement on Chris's character and injury-induced mannerisms. This is quite a feat of writing.

Most of the film was made in Manitoba, although the story is supposed to take place in Kansas City (KCMO) and in eastern Kansas. It is always snowing, and usually you don't have snow there at Thanksgiving (you would in Manitoba). (The film shows Missouri license plates.) I think that KCMO itself makes a spectacular backdrop for film, with its many old buildings with unusual architecture (including the transparent Kansas City Star building), with Lawrence, KS and the KU campus also a spectacular location. When will filmmakers use these?  

First Snow (2007, Yari Film Group / El Camino, dir. Mark Fergus, wr and story by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, very loosely adapted from a story "The Dead" by James Joyce, 105 min, R, Cinemascope). In Denver it has snowed as early as September 13, I think. The title may be anti-global warming, as it connects with our idea of the rapid coming on of winter, probably in November, a kind of month of death. Guy Pearce, ascetic and scrubbed, recreates his role from "Memento," out of threads of plot that don't sound like they would add up to that much.   The film, shot around Albuquerque NM and along I-25 up to Santa Fe, looks great. I've visited the Lama Foundation north of Taos twice (before the Wheeler Peak property burned in 1996) and the countryside looked old hat and real. Guy plays Jimmy, a jute box salesman looking for deals. When his old car breaks down, he meets a fortune teller running a cottage business from a trailer.  He soon learns that he has no future visible after the first autumn snowstorm comes. (They actually shot this film in February.)  This end-of-days judgment will be confirmed in other contentious encounters.  (What would you do on the last day of life? Hand in your life's work for judgment and log off?) There is a curious bit of screenplay-writing foreshadowing early on when is shown, with sticky electrocardiographic leads or traducers moving around on his mostly smooth chest, getting an echocardiogram and is warned about a leaky heart value (mitral valve propapse?) and that nothing much can be done about it. (Why does he chain smoke?)  He begins to run down friends and associates, including a characteristic boss Ed (William Fichtner), a best "male friend," as close as men are supposed to get. Well, maybe not. He has a nominally heterosexual life (some passion shown) with Deidre (Piper Perabo). He starts running down his seedy leads, and winds up with a confrontation with someone who may have been more than a friend. Is Jimmy gay? Is he already deceased, a ghost (he has been wasting away, almost as if he could have HIV)? It's just ambiguous. But the tragedy is completed and the circle is closed. I wouldn't call it Shakespearian. It's not "Supernatural." This is a movie more of atmosphere and mood than real substance. But Bob Yari's new company is capable of delivering very interesting and original independent features indeed.  

The James Joyce story, from Dubliners (a story which became a small indie film in 1987 directed by John Huston, from British company Vestron -- it is not yet on DVD [as of 2009 it is; see below] but is anticipated as Netflix has it in the Save category) has a main character Gabriel Conroy, who discovers, in a personal epiphany after offending people, that he is already dead because of his lack of earthiness, organicity and passion (in Rosenfels terms). I suppose that this allows one to anticipate the "First Snow" film as a kind of "Jacob's Ladder," as if Jimmy were already wasting away into death. The fortune teller could see that -- he wouldn't make it past an autumn first snow (or an "early frost"). I recall an episode of Smallville where another party huckster tells young Clark Kent that he goes on forever. 

For an English teacher's view of Joyce and Dubliners (and curiously relevant to this film), look at DC Examiner April 16, 2007, Erica Jacobs, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Visit the Classroom", here. Private vices to have public consequences, because "vices" become values. That may be OK.  Here is a blog post that develops it further. 

Lionsgate has a DVD of “The Dead” now; blogger.

Wristcutters: A Love Story (2007, Autonomous / Halycon / Sundance, dir. Goran Dukic, story "Kneller's Happer Campers" by Etgar Keret, 91 min, R) is a bit back to the James Joyce idea. This time, an appealing but bland young man Zia (Patrick Fugit) finds himself in Purgatory after attempting suicide because he has lost his girl friend Desiree (Leslie Bibb). The opening of the movie is curious: he cleans and straightens up his room, as if ready to check out of an apartment, before slashing his wrists. Purgatory seems to be a run down desert wasteland, as in the Thunderdome movies, where everything is very random and people have been "dulled" into a certain level of comfort. People can violate the laws of physics, and things can vanish into thin air. There are repeated odd effects, like leaving the gas nozzle in a car and driving off. There is a diary at a gas station telling the stories of the other residents in Purgatory. He meets a hitchhiker Mikal (Shannyn Sossaman) and goes on a road movie with her and a roomie Eugene (Shea Whigman).

The idea of Purgatory as a stripped down world manipulated by outside forces ("people in charge") and no real economy (although Zia gets a job in a pizza hut) and no opportunity, is one I explored in my own "Baltimore Is Missing" Project Greenlight contest entry in 2004. In my script, there is a person, significant to the protagonist, actually identified toward the end as running things. Here, the PIC's seem rather arbitrary, and the paradigm that defines the film sets up a situation where much story movement would become contradictory, although some of the need for reconciliation comes as Zia realizes that he "misses" things about the real world.

One thing about the opening scene: there is a pop record playing, and the music sounds distorted. It's playing on an old-fashioned turntable, so perhaps it is supposed to be record wear or inner groove distortion, but used this way in the soundtrack it leaves the moviegoer with the possibility that the print of the film is bad, although once we leave that scene the Dolby Digital soundtrack is fine.

 There is finally a payoff at the end, and it's not exactly a surprise. 

The second movement of Mahler's Tenth Symphony is a scherzo called "In Purgatorio." It isn't used here, but it could have been a cute idea to use it in the soundrack.

One sequence of the NBC soap "Days of our Lives" in 2004 involved transporting many characters, some of them thought to be dead, to a replica of "Salem" on an island. I thought for a while that this was a purgatory. It wasn't, but following that concept could have made interesting plotting.

The Matador (2005, Miramax / TWC, dir. Richard Shepard, 95 min, R) has a similar premise (as "The Lookout"). A traveling salesman, having fallen on hard times, walks into a bar (in Mexico City) and meets a stranger who will change his life -- except that maybe it has already changed. Greg Kinnear plays Danny Wright, the salesman, and Guy Pearce is the hit man Julian Noble. The film is bifurcated, with an interlude where Wright's boss decides that his own life is ready for a hit, and he needs one last job, involving Danny, to save his life. Meeting strangers is dangerous; but if Joyce is to be believed, we have always known them.  In scope with great wide-angle shots of the Mexican bull fights and Arizona horse races (the bullfight stadium has the shape of Quidditch in Harry Potter.) This is one of the last films that the Weinstein Brothers did while using the Miramax brand.

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997, Hollywood, dir. Tom Jankiewicz, 107 min, R) I saw this in the repetroy Byrd Theater in (Carytown) Richmond (complete with organist; a similar theater is the Heights in Minneapolis). John Cusack plays Martin Q. Blank, a hit man, sent to a Detroit suburb for a job when his high school reunion is taking place. One problem is that he stood up a girl Debi Newberry (Minnie Driver) then, and he has actually been seeing a shrink (Alan Arkin). Considered very funny at the time. 

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007, ThimkFilm / Capitol, dir. Sidney Lumet, 117 min) is like a Coen Brothers film, in that a "greedy" crime goes horribly wrong.  Having embezzled money at a realty company, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) enlists his younger brother Hank (a handsome Ethan Hawke) to commit the perfect victimless crime -- rob their parents' jewelry store and let his folks collect the insurance money. It goes wrong when the mother shoots the hired hand Dex (Michael Shannon) in an exchange that kills them both. The grieving father Charles (Albert Finney) starts thinking revenge. The film plays in out-of-sequence fashion a bit like "Memento."  The very first scene has Andy sodomizing a girl friend, and there are gay innuendos about both brothers, especially when they encounter the high rise drug dealer Justin (a very cute Blaine Horton). In the end, Charles has a bizarre encounter with his son in the ICU, and Charles pastes the electrocardiographic leads to his own chest. 

Producer Paul Parmar was interviewed on ABC Nightline on May 16, 2008.

 

Related reviews:.The Prestige   Batman Begins   Saw  Keane  Feast   Brick Mysterious Skin Jacob's Ladder  An Early Frost   Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

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