Volume 3, Number 17
This Week's Reviews: Memento, Driven, Town & Country.
This Week's Omissions: The Forsaken, Me You Them, One Night at McCool's.
(Dir: Christopher Nolan, Starring Guy Pearce, Joe Pantoliano, Carrie-Anne Moss, Stephen Tobolowsky, Mark Boone Junior, Harriet Sansom Harris, Jorja Fox, Callum Keith Rennie, and Larry Holden)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Christopher Nolan's tour-de-force experimental film Memento has become the movie of early 2001. Since its release at the Sundance Film Festival, it has become a word of mouth sensation -- its positive reviews actually outnumber the awards thrown at Amores Perros (I love the 8-page press kit, two of which are filled with simply the awards). But my feelings on Memento do not parallel those of nearly everyone else. It has been two days since I saw the film and all I can think of is how frustrating it was.
The first thought on that last statement would be that I simply could not get into the experimentation -- no, that is not the problem. In fact, that is my favorite aspect of the film, its toying with narrative storytelling comparable to The Usual Suspects and Rashomon. But it misses a piece of the puzzle -- its conclusion just isn't filling, it's simply annoying.
Memento is told backwards, or at least most of it is. The film opens with a Polaroid picture going from developed to undeveloped, the photo returning into the camera, and a flash going off capturing the image of a dead body on the floor. Protagonist Guy Pearce stands, his gun flies into his hand, and a bullet flies back into it from the head of the dead man. From there the film plays in backwards sections, but not exactly in reverse.
Pearce is Leonard, a former insurance investigator who, after the brutal murder of his wife and the trauma that occurred to him during her death, has a no short-term memory (like Dana Carvey in Clean Slate, but with shorter terms and in a better film). He talks fast because, if he's not careful, he'll forget how the conversation even started and whom he's talking to. For this reason, he takes Polaroid pictures of people and things and writes notes about them (he even has a few notes written on his skin in the form of tattoos). There's a photo of his car, his motel room, and the woman that'll help him. She is Natalie (Moss), and her involvement in his life has made some interesting run-ins with characters like the mysterious Dodd (Rennie).
However, the real roaming mystery man in Leonard's life is Teddy (Pantoliano; always a terrific presence). Our first image of him is when the bullet flies out of his head and it takes the duration of the film to really understand why. We know that Leonard's quest is to avenge the murder of his wife and catch the man with the initials J.G., but how does that come back to Teddy? Ubiquitous, yes -- threatening, no.
There is a secondary plot that plays forward in between the backwards sections. These are there for Leonard to tell a man on the telephone about Sammy Jankis (Tobolowsky), a former insurance claim that also had short-term memory loss. Jankis' story is meant to give some sort of knowledge for Leonard to work off of -- where he failed to understand Sammy then, he can now play off it to help people understand his peril. There is an aside late in the film that attempts to put the Jankis story into a different perspective. Ask Joe Pantoliano and he'll tell you this means one thing, ask Christopher Nolan and he'll tell you it's supposed to be ambiguous (we, like Leonard, have to make decisions whether or not to believe statements by certain characters). I have decided to go against Pantoliano -- his understanding of the film is so alarmingly idiotic (but set-up by the screenplay, so not his fault that it is his conception) that it makes the film lose another notch in my book.
Nevertheless, the real problem for me is in the reasoning that comes up in the final moments. It's like being cheated out of something spectacular. For a film to remain so enthralling for so long, it's hard to believe that it takes such a dramatic misstep. And, even more infuriating, it does not even really make sense. It puts a spin on things that really does not work. Nolan has successfully worked the film for nearly 100 minutes and then throws all inventiveness to the wind.
Memento only falters then - every other facet of the film is top-notch. The film noir feel of the motion picture (Ralph Meeker or Humphrey Bogart could have easily played Leonard back in the 1940's) and seedy settings make for one impressive creation. From the outset, Nolan makes sure that the audience realizes that he knows what he's doing, and attempts (usually creatively) to burn the filmmaking textbook. I'm reminded of the young, but still learning Darren Aronofsky when he made Pi three years ago. That film, like Memento, was definitely experimental and had small problematic holes, but still showed that there was someone with a bright future behind the camera. All things considered, I'm highly excited to see what Nolan will do for his next trick (which is rumored to be an English-language remake of Insomnia).
Experimenting with cinema is, of course, nothing new. I'm slightly reminded of Run Lola Run and Pulp Fiction as I write this, and have some memories of The Sixth Sense (though, that film was an opposite of Memento -- it had a great ending to makeup for an otherwise bad film). However, I feel that Memento is easily one of the most auspicious experimental works in some time. Nolan's directorial style and Dody Dorn's editing are like nearly nothing seen before and the satisfaction at seeing something new on celluloid is refreshing (some extra credit should also be given to Nolan's brother Jonathan, who wrote the short story the film is based on).
But I still cannot get out of my mind the distress that
comes from the poor finale. I'm not someone that only likes happy-go-lucky films (just
look at the films that top my 2001 list so far: The Widow of Saint-Pierre, The
Pledge, Panic, In the Mood for Love, and Faithless), but I
don't like to feel cheated by a film. I had never really understood that aggrieved feeling
Roger Ebert spoke of when he saw The Usual Suspects, but I get it now. I have
felt it for 48 hours, thinking of how one great film had done something so detrimental. I
still disagree with him on The Usual Suspects, whose finale, in my mind at least,
makes for a terrific twist, but I can only turn to names like New York Times'
A.O. Scott and The Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum to agree with me on Memento.
Rosenbaum interestingly compared the film to Edmund Wilson's quote on bad mystery novels
being like excitedly going through a box of package padding and finding rusty nails. I
slightly disagree, though; there is so much in the first part of the film that it deserves
to be seen. Memento is instead like going through a box of diamonds and finding those
rusty nails at the bottom.
(Dir: Renny Harlin, Starring Kip Purdue, Estella Warren, Sylvester Stallone, Til Schweiger, Burt Reynolds, Brent Briscoe, Stacy Edwards, Robert Sean Leonard, Gina Gershon, and Cristián de la Fuente)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Driven is one of those high-octane action films that spends as much time and money on eye-candy in an effort to hide its inability to work with an effective story. Rarely can a film jam ten major characters without giving a single one anything interesting to do. Without a doubt, Driven is merely an excuse to have cars go fast and testosterone levels grow faster. Finnish director Renny Harlin has made a career out of these stories -- he is the only director I can think of that makes bad Jerry Bruckheimer films without the help of Jerry Bruckheimer.
Despite the ad campaign's attempt to paint Sylvester Stallone as the lead, this is predominately the story of Jimmy Blye (Pardue), a young upstart in the car racing world. He hasn't the experience of some of the seasoned pros he races, yet can still beats them regularly. Blye feels obligations from every side, especially from his aggressive manager Carl Henry (Reynolds) and his domineering brother Demille (Leonard). Over the last few races, he has defeated favorite Beau Brandenburg (Schweiger), making Blye an early favorite to win the championship. But he cannot get his concentration completely on the races and starts to fall back, bringing Brandenburg neck and neck with him in the standings.
Complications arise when Brandenberg longtime girlfriend Sophia (Warren) dumps him for Blye. Each of the men have doubts about Sophia's interests -- Brandenberg is sure that she is still in love with him, and Blye does not necessarily doubt it. Brought in to give some needed advice to the youth is Joe Tanto (Stallone), a down and out has-been (sound familiar?) who takes the second car for old friend Carl Henry in hopes that he can keep the other racers from getting in the way of Blye's ride into victory.
And, of course, there has to be something afoul about his placement in this car -- he replaces Memo Moreno (de la Fuente), the new boyfriend of Tanto's still agitated ex, Cathy (Gershon). They have little spats here and there to make it clear that the two have a less than stellar post-lovers relationship. Tanto is now suited with journalist Lucretia Clan (Edwards, who is best known as the deaf girl from Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men) working on an exposé to show male dominance in sports.
Renny Harlin hasn't the least interest in making sure any of these characters have anything worth following, they are just little people to make subplots in between his action sequences. What really hurts this film, though, is that the races aren't really that interesting. I'm sure it comes as no surprise, but I'm not a racing aficionado and my interest in the races were not really that high in the first place, but I can certainly tell the difference between a good race and a bad one -- and these are almost all bad ones. Under special effects coordinator Brian Jennings, the visual effects look blurry and fake - I cringe at the fact that CGI is replacing old model visual effects, which have always looked better than CGI will for a long time. Adding this onto the oft out of focus camera work from Mauro Fiore (Get Carter) and the slapdash editing by Stuart Levy and it is easy to see that Driven is nothing more than a overpriced made-for-TV movie.
In all the confusion and muddle, there is a shining moment
-- a single five minute aside that shows other racers that this film did not have the time
to document. These are the hearts and souls of the sport -- the chaps that go on for the
love of racing, not for the glory of winning. Some have wives, some have children, and all
are brought together by their efforts to do their best on the track. Harlin, Levy, and
music supervisor Peter Afterman (who plays the melodious chant "Mother" by the
French group Era) grab a five minutes to a 127 minute film that I will not forget. To bad
I cannot say that for the other 122 minutes.
|Town & Country
(Dir: Peter Chelsom, Starring Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Garry Shandling, Goldie Hawn, Jenna Elfman, Andie MacDowell, Natassja Kinski, Josh Hartnett, Buck Henry, Ally Dunne, Charlton Heston, Marian Seldes, Katherine Towne, Tricia Vessey, and Christine Holz)
BY: DAVID PERRY
When Town & Country began production 4½ years ago, I can imagine that it might have worked on some level. No, it probably never would have been an absolutely brilliant middle-aged sex comedy in the vein of Woody Allen, but Town & Country could have been a nice little forgettable film. But now it is a monstrosity, the collective creation of rewrites, reshoots, and production foibles. What was once a light little film has become Frankenstein's monster.
Now, this is not to say that the Peter Chelsom film is a complete disgrace -- I'll actually admit that I laughed a few times -- but it never really comes to fruition. You can feel every 10th draft, every Warren Beatty imposed retake years after the first. Muddled is one word for the film, lowly is another.
Lowly because Town & Country never really exacts any charge that might make its oft discouraging events seem worthwhile. Some people, I'm sure, will find it funny to watch Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn simulate sex on a couch -- showing more wrinkled skin than Lin Shaye in There's Something About Mary -- but I did not get it, I was more appalled than anything. How about the awkward view of Jenna Elfman in a Marilyn Monroe outfit and Beatty in a polar bear costume trying to enact some sort of oral sex unknowingly in front of Beatty's adult son (Hartnett)? No, wait, my favorite scene of disrepute is when Andie MacDowell forces Beatty to act like one of her childhood stuffed animals is having sex with another -- the audience's only facility for this scene is to cringe.
As you can guess, this film is about the women that Warren Beatty sleeps with (or attempts to sleep with). He is Porter Stoddard, a highly successful architect living in a posh 5th Avenue apartment when not staying at the home in the Hamptons. He loves his wife, the equally successful clothing designer Ellie (Keaton), and two kids but cannot help but embark in the occasional philandering with cellist Alex (Kinski). Ellie is in the dark -- she has no earthly idea that Porter is having an affair. Then, when Ellie's best friend Mona (Hawn) follows her husband Griffin (Shandling) to a meeting with a redhead (who is actually a man dressed as a woman -- Griffin's homosexuality is one of the many themes this film deals with poorly), everything falls apart.
Mona and Griffin have a one-sided divorce settlement, leaving nearly everything to her. Porter is forced by Ellie to go with Mona as she checks out their old home in Mississippi, where the two old friends rekindle their equally old flames. When Porter gets back, Ellie has learned about the affair with Alex and must hope that he can keep his recent betrayal with Mona under wraps.
Ellie mercilessly throws Porter out -- no marriage counsel, no talking, nothing, just complete dismissal. Now he and Griffin are in a limbo -- hoping that they can somehow get back into their old lives. For a retreat, the two head to Sun Valley, the location of the only estate Griffin received in the settlement. But, despite his hopes to fix his deviant ways, Porter finds that every woman there seems to lust after him, including socialite Eugenie (MacDowell) and kooky store clerk Auburn (Elfman).
There are a few terrific moments in the film, without a
doubt, but most of those fine moments are ruined by a subsequent misstep. I especially
enjoyed Porter's meeting with Eugenie's parents, a gun-toting father (Heston) and a
foul-mouthed mother (Seldes). But, in mere minutes, we are watching that mentioned scene
with the stuffed animals. Sandwiched in-between moments of dreck are diamonds in the
rough. The only problem is that you have to watch the dreck to get to the diamonds.