Tagged Memory

Memento’s Deconstructionist Form

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.
Mystery/Thriller

★★★★★
POSTER
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?
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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.MCDMEME EC031A 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.
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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.

Elizabeth Olsen Braves the Silent House

Silent House. 2011. Directed by Chris Kentis & Laura Lau. Screenplay by Lau; based on the original screenplay by Oscar Estévez for the film La casa muda.
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Julia Taylor Ross, Adam Barnett, & Haley Murphy. Elle Driver/Tazora Films.
Rated R. 86 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★
POSTER
Always a sucker for films that attempt to work outside the box, in any degree, the original version of this American remake, La casa muda, was pretty damn good. Seeing a film of this nature with sly editing making everything look like one long shot is ambitious, especially considering it works to great effect. When I heard the remake was coming I didn’t feel too confident it’d turn out near as good. However, with directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (the latter also adapting the screenplay) planning on replicating the real-time feel of the original, there came further hope. It isn’t simply a gimmick. What this technique does is pull the viewer into the perspective of the lead character, Sarah, so that as she turns a corner we’re not exactly sure, like her, if something terrifying lies around it. Further than that, the way this interrupted take technique presents itself lends to the story, as a lot of the time you’re busy following Sarah – too busy to try and suss out what’s really going on. Not to say this is a brilliant twist, nor is it unique or original. But as a smart viewer, I like to believe I’m able to sometimes get ahead of the plot. Here, I felt mostly too concerned with riding next to Sarah in the almost P.O.V style filming. With eerie sound design, a dreamy and almost nightmarish feel, Elizabeth Olsen does her part by nailing the lead role and keeping us fettered to terror, as her character navigates the shadowy, silent house.
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Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) heads out to the lakeside summer house she spent time in as a little girl. She and her father, John (Adam Trese), are packing the place up, as it’s about to be sold. They pack up boxes, throw things together, and try to get all the last minute chores finished up. Soon, they’ve got John’s brother Pete (Eric Sheffer Stevens) there to help, although the two brothers don’t exactly always get along. Later on, Sarah runs into a girl named Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross) who says they knew each other once upon a time; at first Sarah doesn’t remember, then says she does but her memory is just a little spotty.
The longer they stay at the house by the lake, Sarah begins to start seeing people lurking in the darkness. When Pete leaves, things get worse. Eventually, John is found bleeding, unconscious, and Sarah sees more people, hears them, including a little girl standing by the road outside. The situation spirals into madness. When Pete comes back he finds Sarah delirious. But as he investigates the house it becomes clear there is something definitely sinister in the making.
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Cinematographer Igor Martinovic (D.P on House of Cards, as well as some great documentaries such as The Tillman Story and Man on Wire) gives us a frenetic style almost akin to the found footage genre, but there are also times where the camerawork creeps along with Sarah, as it puts us directly in her perspective. So the balance between nice steady frames and the more bumpy handheld style is pretty good. Because we get that feel of being right alongside Sarah yet there’s also that chaos together with it, and it works to make things unsettling. The lighting is really spectacular here, too. Seeing as how the film is sort of experimental, in that it’s made to look like an entirely uninterrupted take (edited keenly for that effect), I’m amazed they were able to work the lighting out at all. Let alone make things look so dark and gloomy. At a certain point, it feels as if we’re in a dream and floating along through the darkness in the halls of this house, lost and bewildered just as much as Sarah herself.
Adding to the suspense and tension of the cinematography is the sound design, courtesy of Glenn To. Morgan, whose work spans everything from 9&1/2 Weeks to The Crow to Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday. Without a score, Silent House manages to wrap itself around you using ambient rumbles, the pulse and swell of noise, combined with all the regular noises of a house amplified due to the near constant silence – doors closing, floorboards underneath the feet, and so on transform into near characters themselves at certain points in time. Whenever a production is able to create such an all around atmosphere of dread by both its use of visuals and also the overall sound design, there’s a good chance I’m at least going to be affected a slight bit. What happens in Silent House completely unnerves me, from the top on down.
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In a film where there’s basically only one performance that matters, Elizabeth Olsen brings a theatrical sort of quality to the character of Sarah. Apparently the directors wanted someone with a stage presence, as the demands of long takes and so much focus on Sarah at all times (she’s in every last scene) required that type of disposition. Honestly, no matter how you ultimately feel about this movie as a whole, you’ve got to admit Olsen gives a quality performance. If a lesser actor were in her place it may not have even held my focus for its sparse 86-minute runtime. With only a couple other people in the film, the central cast itself only consisting of three people, Silent House is totally minimalist, and Olsen carries so much of the film’s weight by immersing us into Sarah’s perspective. Especially once the plot details are revealed and the nasty details come out, Olsen depicts the realization of Sarah, the pieces fitting into place in her mind so perfectly; it’s a mix somewhere between astonishment and confusion. But the best of her performance is that she really does not let on anything to the viewer, so that the first time around when you watch this it’s easy to get blindsided with the truth, just as Sarah ends up. Part of that is the writing, as well. Most of it, though, is Olsen. She deserves better recognition, this could’ve turned out terribly misguided were she not cast.
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Never afraid of being in the realm of unpopular opinion, Silent House is a 4-star affair. While I try not to be too hard on remakes for no reason, often they never reach the excellence of their original versions. La casa muda was great; so is the remake. Olsen gives herself over to the role wholly. Backing her is a bunch of solid camerawork, as well as the fact it’s edited smoothly to feel like one single take throughout the entire film. The movie is quick, dreamy, disturbing. I can’t spoil any of the plot further than what I’ve said because this finale really ought to be seen without knowing anything; like many films. But the impact of the plot’s conclusions here are part of what makes everything worth it, part of why the whole affected me. Moreover, this one deserves a second watch after you’ve seen what happens, as there are plenty of opportunities to pick out foreshadowing moments, brief pieces that lay out the way forward. Give this its chance and perhaps you’ll be unsettled, if that’s what you’re looking for like me.