Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Return of Memento and the Toys

Last weekend was a bit of a movie weekend at our home. My daughter watches a lot of movies with her friends through Netflex on the PS3. But, late Saturday afternoon she and her boyfriend found themselves acutely afflicted with boredomitus, boredom being the national epidemic of this country, apparently. I was telling them that I had just purchased Toy Story 3 on Blu-Ray, but Jennifer was off playing in a near-by tennis tournament so we were saving that one for a Sunday evening family viewing.

I buy everything on Blu-Ray these days, as long as there is a “digital copy” packaged with the film. My PC doesn’t play Blu-Rays yet so I need a DVD copy for those repeat viewings that often drive my wife and child mad. Anyway, the conversation drifted toward the last pure DVD I bought – The Dark Knight.

As long-time readers know, Christopher Nolan is my favorite contemporary film director. I was truly impressed with his last film, Inception, which I saw in IMAX this past summer. Anyway, the boyfriend and I were discussing how much he enjoyed The Dark Knight, having watched it two dozen times or more. So, I ventured to mention some of Nolan’s other works.

The conversation drifted to Nolan’s first true feature-length film, Memento, which I still hold to be a brilliant effort. I told the boyfriend and my daughter about the basic premise. The film is (primarily) told backwards. You see the end at the beginning and the beginning at the end. It is about a man who has short-term memory loss who is seeking vengeance for the murder of his wife.

The neat thing about Nolan’s non-linear (or in this case reverse linear) story-telling is that it fits perfectly with the protagonist’s condition. The audience sees the character in action and knows the ultimate motivation for what he is doing but has no immediate understanding of his present motivations at any given moment. In other words, a scene begins without reference to the immediate “past.” We only know how things turn out in the “future.” We experience what short-term memory loss actually is, within the presentation of the film.

As one character says in the film: “It’s all backwards. I mean, you know where you're going but you don’t remember where you’ve been.” And the film puts the viewer precisely into this perspective by the way it is told. (Although, in fairness, the film’s time scheme is even more complicated than that. There is a black and white element to the film that is being told forward in time while the color portion of the film is backwards.)

Another favorite line in the film is when Leonard, the protagonist, narrates words to the memory of his dead wife about his quest for vengeance: "I can't remember to forget you."

Well, my daughter and the boyfriend found the idea interesting. Surprisingly so. So, I took the next step and – at the risk of conveying how geeky I can be about such things – I presented them with my “limited edition” packaging of the film. It is presented as a psychiatric patient’s file with all sorts of notes and forms and references to bits and pieces of the movie.

This enticed them further. So, I asked if they’d like to watch the beginning (or the end in this case) just to see if they could get in to it. The next thing I knew it was an hour later and we had to pause the film to go for dinner, a fund-raising bean supper a local church was having. I told them we didn’t have to see the rest of the film because I knew they were planning to go to a friend’s house for a bonfire (which seems to be all the rage among kids around here these days) after we ate.

Oh no. They were hooked. It was fun to see. So, after the side trek to the bean-supper (they both had hot dog plates), we sat down to finish off the last 45 minutes or so of the film. Nolan constructs the film masterfully. The tension builds in spite of the fact you know what happens in the end because you have no idea what happens in the beginning. The puzzle is being pieced together until slowly the viewer knows more about what is happening that the main character does. Because he can’t remember the beginning. And as the beginning comes into the sharper view, as the puzzle pieces fall together, what is revealed is shocking, even if ambiguous.

Guy Pearce, Carrie-Ann Moss, and Joe Pantoliano are all great in this film. Nolan shot it on a shoe string budget in about 28 days, so having these big named actors with their relatively big salaries required an efficient shoot. Nolan pulled it all off within a (very low) budget, which impressed some important people in large studios. His career took off.

My daughter and the boyfriend were impressed with the film even though it has no cool special effects, no car chases, no sex, no explosions, no action. Just the slow, masterful build-up of the tension inherent in the marvelous mystery Memento is about. Just an exceptional film and particularly enjoyable for me this last Saturday because it was the first time I had watched it in many years and the first time I had gotten to share it with my daughter.

By the way, the soundtrack to Memento is excellent and worth owning. I listened to it much of the rest of the weekend and even into tonight.

Sunday evening it was time to check out Toy Story 3, which none of us had seen in the theater last summer. I am a huge Pixar fan and own most of their films on DVD. The more recent ones like Cars and Ratatouille (both of which I saw in theaters) are not part of my collection. But, I watched the original two Toy Story films repeatedly back in the day when my daughter was a child and really enjoyed the brightly comical animation in her child-like awareness. (Sure beat the hell out of Barney.) Part of the reason I enjoy these films is that it allows me to touch her former child-like awareness in my mind, even though I can retain only the vaguest notions of my own such experiences as a child.

Toy Story 3 is hilarious, escapist, fun. The animation is, of course, state of the art. There are a lot of references to things that happened in the first two films so I’m not sure how many people who have not been exposed to Toy Story before would connect with some of that. At any rate, the story picks up ten years or so after Toy Story 2 with Andy getting ready to go off to college.

The toys (Woody, Buzz, etc.) are all in an existential quandary. Andy doesn’t play with them anymore. The film begins with a funny attempt by the toys to draw attention to themselves in hopes that Andy with take notice and play with them for awhile. The toys are feeling sad and unfulfilled because they are “meant” to be played with and have this need in their toy Being. An interesting perspective from the toy’s point-of-view.

Andy fully intends to take Woody with him to college but the other toys are boxed up and destined for the attic, something they all fear. An attempt to avoid the attic ends up with all the toys, including Woody, accidentally tossed into a garbage truck and the real adventure of the story begins. This one ends up with a bittersweet ending after several enjoyably comical twists and turns in the adventure. I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though I don’t think it was quite up to the standards of the first two films.

It was also enjoyable seeing it in Blu-Ray, of course. The vivid colors and sharp imagery jumps right out at you. The ability to experience new films this way, coupled with other interests and the workings of my personal schedule, is a big reason I often decide to not see films in theaters anymore. The in-theater experience is great for certain truly visual masterpieces like Avatar, for example. But, showing a little patience after the initial release of a feature film allows me to watch the film fresh and more inexpensively than would otherwise be the case.

There are exceptions. I always see Christopher Nolan’s films in theater. But, seeing Memento again after so long has inspired me to revisit some other favorite DVDs in my movie collection. Winter is an excellent time to attempt such things. So, I may be posting more about my in-home cinematic impressions in the future.

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