The fairy tales are getting twisty
Memento. 2000. Directed & Written by Christopher Nolan; based on the short story “Memento Mori” by Jonathan Nolan.
Starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Russ Fega, Jorja Fox, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harriet Sansom Harris, Thomas Lennon, & Callum Keith Rennie. Newmarket Capital Group/Team Todd/I Remember Productions.
Rated 14A. 113 minutes.
Christopher Nolan has moved on to bigger blockbuster-type movies. Once his reiteration of the classic Batman character hit theatres, nothing was ever the same for his career. Much as I’m a fan of his Batman trilogy, even a big Batman fan before him, the Nolan I prefer most is the one who did Following, remade Insomnia, and of course the one responsible for this cinematic gem, Memento.
Right at the turn of the 21st century, Nolan gave us an interesting mystery film that defies the expectations of the genre. It’s a thriller that works backward through the chronological order, instead of forward, and in a way is anticlimactic. However, for all its different techniques the movie never feels too much like a try-hard indie, hoping to break the mould with a script that’s beyond quirky. There’s every bit of the independent film spirit within this piece of work. Although, Nolan never goes for the cheap thrill. This is a cerebral thriller, stained with blood and mystery and the shattered frame of a brain’s memories. Guy Pearce puts in a whopping performance in a tough role that effectively put him up there with the best actors of his generation. Every scene is interesting because it not only looks good, they all force you to think forward, backward, every which way. The structure of the movie lends a hand to the plot, the focus on memories and a backward sequence of trying to retrace one’s steps (literally one’s memories). A powerful revenge story that’s fuelled by heart, though ultimately a story that never resolves itself fully. And that’s part of the point, as we take the journey with the main character Leonard (Pearce) discovering there’s no way to fully resolve his situation. At the bottom of it all, there’s the question of revenge itself, and if it would make a difference to Leonard.
While Leonard has no short term memory because of an attack on him and his wife, precipitating his seeking revenge, this is a way for Nolan to ask us: is revenge worth it, even if you could remember?
Part of Memento‘s interesting charm overall is the way Nolan challenges how we watch a film. In turn, this calls to mind how Leonard himself recalls memory. We come to like he does in the midst of his day, in places where he doesn’t exactly remember (unless they’re marked on one of his cue cards or tattooed on his body). The writing, the scenes and how they’re edited into one another like stitching, this all initiates us into the experience of Leonard and his memory issues.
So while it may feel like a gimmick to some Nolan employs the backward chronological order for a specific purpose, to replicate those ideas of memory while simultaneously playing with the format of film itself, as well as how the audience watches one. The clerk at the motel (played by the excellent Mark Boone Junior) says it best, that feeling like you’re waking up everyday – how Leonard describes his condition – must have everything feel backwards, literally describing the film and its structure: Leonard thinks he wants to do something, but he’s not sure about what he’s just done. The writing is truly genius. If you don’t admire Nolan’s filmmaking, another aspect in which he excels generally, how can you not find his writing compelling? This screenplay speaks volumes. At first there feels like an intricate-style, labyrinthine weaving to the plot. And to a degree there is. Yet the way Nolan presents it makes the difficulty wear off. Soon you find yourself along with Leonard for the ride, full stop. Something I dig is the fact that this backward order of scenes kind of prevents us from trying to think ahead, it takes away that element of jumping past the story and worrying more about “whodunit” than any of the best parts about the plot, the film as a final product, so on.A moment I love is the first real flashback we get from Leonard, concerning his wife. Because it starts out while he’s in the diner, then when he closes his eyes the sound design takes all that noise out – the other patrons, dishes clinking together, food frying, et cetera – and we fall inside his head with him. The cinematography throughout the entire film is spectacular. In this scene, there’s a beautiful, dreamy quality to the memories, the raw, genuine stuff Leonard can remember. This distinctly divides parts of the movie, as we get this nice sort of washed out look to the regular parts of the present, a sparkling beauty to the memories of his wife, a darkness to the night of her death, and then there are the black-and-white flashbacks to other portions of Leonard’s life, including his old job, Sammy (Stephen Tobolowsky), his conversation on the telephone in the motel room. Nolan seamlessly connects these looks to make a whole, a palette that stretches out over just a little under two solid hours. It’s a rich, interesting tapestry that will captivate any curious audience. The directorial choices from Nolan are what make his screenplay work, proving he’s a solid writer as much as he is a director.
The plot is what makes this movie so unique, yes. Pearce is the soul which drives the story. His voice-over narration is spot on. Moreover, he constantly embodies Leonard, keeping us confused along with him until the pieces fall together. The way Pearce plays Leonard makes us feel for him. At times, we might even get a bit frustrated; both for him and with him. In the more frantic moments Pearce truly wrings out the empathetic qualities, pleading with us to feel his pain, and most times it takes very few pleads. He makes Leonard charming, to the point, he’s an odd man due to his condition yet there is a friendly feel to him. This single performance is why I’ve kept an interest in Pearce, no matter the role he takes. A once in a lifetime performance in a strange, innovative bit of mystery cinema.
This is one of the first great movies of the 2000s, right as the new century came about. Memento takes you by the hand, down a bumpy road filled with unreliable characters, an unreliable narrator, and throws you down the corridor of revenge on a trail of broken memories. There aren’t any better films that relay the feeling of memory. Above all, Nolan’s writing and directing – aided by the incredible cinematography of Wally Pfister – takes us through the process of what it’s like to rebuild memory, to have to out of necessity for the revenge of a terrible event. Along the way we spend time with Leonard, who’s most certainly a classic film character that will go down with the greats, and Pearce flesh him out well to the point we’re caught up intricately with his dilemma right to the bitter end. Again, I do love Nolan’s later work – The Prestige is one of my favourites out of his catalogue – yet I can’t help returning to his earliest efforts, such as this treat. Over any plot or character developments, Memento gives us a masterclass in form, allowing the cinematic techniques Nolan brings to the screen to play the lead character even above Pearce. Don’t mistake it: this is not a movie, it’s a defining experience of film.
The Matrix. 1999. Directed & Written by Lana and Lilly Wachowski.
Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Julian Arahanga, Matt Doran, Belinda McClory, Anthony Ray Parker, Paul Goddard, Robert Taylor, David Aston, & Marc Aden Gray. Warner Bros./Village Roadshow Pictures/Groucho II Film Partnership.
Rated 14A. 136 minutes.
An interest of mine, as well as the minor in my Honours degree, has always been Philosophy. Even the times when I can’t grasp a concept the entire school as a whole is intriguing. There are so many different philosophies, ranging the gamut of Eastern and Western Philosophy, many great thinkers since time immemorial. So what happens when you take the ideas of many philosophies, create an interesting, modern story, then wrap the whole innovative package inside an action film?
Then, you have The Matrix.
Lana and Lilly Wachowski (formerly known as Larry and Andy) wrote one of the most unique, original science fiction-action adventures in cinematic history, let alone of the 1990s. Their ideas concerning various philosophies translated into something which captivated the minds of those willing to think outside the box. No more did a science fiction-actioner flick need to be about a renegade ass kicker taking on bad guys, villainous henchman, terrorists, and so forth. Nor did it have to involve space, as was often the case before this came along. After The Matrix, this changed. Writers became more willing to take chances, at least until remake and sequel fever got too serious. For a while, though, we coasted on the high of the Wachowski genius. No matter how you feel about the sequels, this first film broke new ground, daring to go where no one had ventured, at least not in any significant capacity. The story, the action, every last bit is equal to the portion before it. And not many movies can make their stories so amazing while also doing amazing stunts and action sequences overall. That’s where this movie gains its traction.
The Oracle is one of the best parts. Her dialogue does so much. She questions cause and effect. Above her kitchen door is KNOW THYSELF in Latin (Temet Nosce), which was supposedly inscribed in The Temple of Apollo at Delphi; this connects to the Delphic Oracle, the Pythia. In relation to Delphi, this iteration of the Oracle follows suit with the fact the Pythia, the one through whom Apollo spoke, needed to be an older woman “of blameless life” it is said.
One of the most obvious allusions in the screenplay as whole is the concept of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, narrated as usual by that bad motherfucker named Socrates, or as he was known in his break dance circles Socra-deez-nuts.
If you’ve never actually heard of this allegorical story, jump over here, then come back.
So Neo (Keanu Reeves) is essentially one of those people down in the cave. Chained to his life, this imposed reality, he’s left staring at the blank wall. Only here the blank wall is a falsified reality, one that looks and feels alive, real, genuine. But underneath, outside of the cave, is an actual life. One where things have deteriorated. Now, in Plato’s allegory there’s none of the post-apocalyptic storytelling. Only that the truth is beyond the cave, it is out in the light, beyond darkness. So Neo sits watching the fire in the cave, his supposed life and reality and believing the shadows it casts upon the wall are his only truth. Then in comes Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). He brings the truth. All of a sudden, Neo is in the light. At first, it isn’t easy. Like Plato’s narrating Socrates relays, the people exit the cave, they see the light, and initially the light burns their eyes. Likewise, Neo is served the truth so quickly, so cold, his body reacts physically. This is a great adaptation of Plato into a recognizable, yet smart package.
Who better to play the blank slate, the tabula rasa that is Neo than Keanu? Honestly, though. I personally love the guy as an actor, he can be compelling at times. But really, his sort of disaffected attitude works in the beginning. He’s able to feel like this almost teenage-like character, one whose adult life hasn’t fully kicked in. Then as the hits keep coming he begins to feel more real, an emotional man that opens up to the truth of the world. Added to that, Reeves can do the action bit. He’s attuned to this kind of role. Best of all in terms of his casting is that he doesn’t even need to do a whole lot of intense dialogue. Not that he can’t, he certainly can. Rather, the Wachowskis needed someone able to convey the innocent qualities of the character then carry the action star part as the plot progressed. They got what they needed.
Then there’s Laurence fucking Fishburne. A treasure, unheralded. Yes, he gets lot of roles. I just don’t think people appreciate his range. He’s done everything from play in a Coppola classic to portray a wild gangster to give us the best performance as Thomas Harris’ Jack Crawford character on screen. Here, he gives us the perfect Morpheus. Nobody else could have done it this way. He has an iconic voice anyway, though it’s all in his presence, the delivery of his lines. It’s in the fact Fishburne makes Morpheus truly feel like this all-knowing, ever knowledgeable, almost ancient-type figure. This is a star role as is, but Fishburne gives it the extra boost needed to lift his dialogue off the page and make it live.
There’s an equal balance of philosophical musing and action in this film. The innovative bits aren’t solely in the enjoyable screenplay. One massive portion of that is due to the unique action sequences. The Wachowskis single-handedly coined the term Bullet Time, which of course comes out in the iconic sequence where Neo finally discovers what Morpheus meant earlier when implying he wouldn’t have to dodge any bullets, someday, at some point. A solid moment. Before that we’re given a wonderfully bullet laden sequence as Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) enter the building on their way to locate and free a confined Morpheus. This entire series of scenes is amazing, as they go right up to the top of the building. That’s where Neo first dodges bullets, almost all succesfully. It’s not until later in a hallway facing the agents that Neo realizes he can literally stop bullets with just his hands. Both of those moments are well executed and intense, particularly the latter as its effectively the climax of the movie, after The One discovers his full potential. But any action fan in their right mind will love this movie for its wild fun. Hundreds of bullets literally drop from the sky when Neo and Trinity go for Morpheus, the agents are tough to beat, and this makes for exciting scenes. Love when Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) comes up against Neo, they’re riveting to watch, and the fight choreography is stellar (as were the scenes where Neo trains alongside Morpheus fighting). Instead of watching the typical sort of action, the Wachowskis give us gorgeous stunts, a bit of the odd elements that come along with the agents and The Matrix’s physics, even Neo himself. You can’t be bored watching any of this stuff, bottom line.
For me, The Matrix is an outright masterpiece of modern cinema. Again, it taught people that action, specifically that with a science fiction angle, needn’t always be the same tired formula. Philosophy and action can mix. Brain and brawn find middle ground, a territory where each co-exist in the minds of bold filmmakers. There are a couple solid performances, a plethora of action sequences to boggle your brains, and a satisfying finale that’s ripe to lead into other stories, yet can easily be taken as one standalone film if you want to see it that way. No matter how you cut it The Matrix blew things wide open. A movie right before the turn of the 21st century that I’ll never, ever find far from my mind. It comes along with exciting memories of being 14, hanging with best friends, eating chips and drinking Pepsi, watching movies late into the night and having fun. And that’s part of what movies are all about, good or bad. Fortunately, this is better than good. It is perfect.