Saturday, August 27, 2011

Saturday Night at the Movies: "Memento"

Welcome to "Saturday Night at the Movies," a weekly feature in which I recommend an older title that you can go watch, right this very minute (provided you have Netflix Instant).

From May 2001: “Memento” is a gloriously intelligent little wind-up toy of a movie, a film that pulses with the excitement of filmmakers who are getting away with something great, and know it. It has the same kind of giddy fun that “Run Lola Run” and “Pulp Fiction” had—cheerful disregard for the rules, warm embracing of new ideas in form and formula.

The idea here is that Guy Pearce is an insurance investigator who witnessed the rape and murder of his wife, and hasn’t been the same since. He’s developed a bizarre condition whereby he has no short-term memory; he can remember nothing that’s happened since the incident and can make new memories, and relies on notes, Polaroid photos, and tattoos to keep the facts straight as he searches for his wife’s killer.

From that, it sounds like a dramatic version of Dana Carvey’s 1994 comedy “Clean Slate”. The twist, and it is a good one, is that the story is told backwards. The device is conveyed beautifully in a perfect opening that literally runs backwards (we watch a developed Polaroid fade to grey, go back into the camera, and then see a bullet come out of the villain’s head and back into Pearce’s gun). After that, the sequences are played out in reverse order, interspersed by a fascinating story that Pearce is telling someone over his motel phone, about a man he investigated in his insurance days who had a similar condition.

What’s great about the movie is how well all this manages to come together, and how what would seem to be a gimmick (after all, you know who he kills at the end/beginning, so the movie would seem then to be about how he found him out) and twisting it into a surprisingly tricky resolution.

Jesus Christ, “Memento” kicks ass. The acting is top-notch, the writing is sharp, and the Christopher Nolan’s direction manages to make the movie into a modern film noir without ever reverting to the obvious noir look (most of the film takes place in bright daylight, instead of the usual smoky nightdrops and vertical blinds). It’s a movie that was clearly made by people who love movies, and not (as is often the case) by people who love money.

"Memento" is available on DVD and Blu-ray and is currently streaming on Netflix. In the interest of not being all George Lucas-y, I have not removed phrases from this archived review like "Jesus Christ, 'Memento' kicks ass," and would like to remind you that a writer can grow quite a bit in a decade, thank goodness.

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