St. Petersburg Times: Weekend

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'Memento' is brilliantly backward


© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 6, 2001

Memento (R)

A fascinating movie puzzle constructed backward. The first scene in the film is actually the last event of the plot, and the last scene is what kicks off the story. This may sound confusing, but writer-director Christopher Nolan brilliantly follows the rules he creates for a new cinematic game.

Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce, L.A. Confidential) is a hero who, due to a vague injury, can't collect memories. Anything he learns is erased within minutes unless he jots down the idea. The most important ones, about who brutally murdered his wife, are tattooed on his body.

Joe Pantoliano and Carrie Anne-Moss from The Matrix co-star as whomever Leonard remembers them to be. It's no mystery that Pantoliano winds up dead; what's fun is uncovering why it happened as no thriller attempted before.

First impressions: "Nolan deftly trains the audience to follow his lead. Leonard's confused thoughts speak for us. Changes in color tint suggest when he's enjoying brief spasms of memory. Some scenes are repeated, overlapped with the next previous occurrence, providing a hint of linear direction. Memento is delicately complex, like a house of cards Nolan dismantles piece by piece. . . .

"There's something vaguely suspicious about everyone in Memento, and the end credits won't stop a viewer's doubting. By working backward, Nolan has pushed the genre forward to a new, deliciously perplexing level of excellence. The rest, as they say, is mystery."

Second thoughts: This and Hedwig and the Angry Inch are still neck-and-neck in the race for the best film of 2001.

Rental audience: Inquisitive minds to whom questions are as important as answers.

Rent it if you enjoy: The Usual Suspects, Rubik's cube

The Amati Girls (PG)

Overbaked slice of Italian-American life focusing on the four Amati sisters, each with their own troubles. Grace (Mercedes Ruehl) dotes on her irritatingly dependent husband (Paul Sorvino), Denise (Dinah Manoff) has delusions of being a professional singer, Christine (Sean Young) pines for her workaholic husband (Jamey Sheridan), and Dolores (Lily Knight) is mentally challenged.

First impressions: "DeSalvo simply locks down the camera, allowing her actors to mope and vent in scenes that spontaneously combust into cloying melodrama. The Amati Girls follows the herky-jerky rhythms of a TV movie, complete with crescendos to suggest where commercial breaks should be.

"The performances are fine, but it's disconcerting to watch good actors struggle to make this material work. What amazes is DeSalvo's reliance on story development tactics that wouldn't pass muster in a beginner's workshop."

Second thoughts: The road to movie hell is paved with such good intentions as this.

Rental audience: Families starved for something to watch together.

Rent it if you enjoy: Being treated like a dysfunctional family at Olive Garden.


Videos worth another look

The universal director

Akira Kurosawa's work had a profound influence on the international film world.

Filmmakers still bow respectfully to the memory of Akira Kurosawa, whose movies blended epic Japanese tradition and action crossing any language boundaries.

Kurosawa died of a stroke on this date in 1998, leaving behind one of the most influential careers of any director. He was always aware of Western entertainment sensibilities and played to them in an era when the prospect of subtitles typically kept audiences away.

American filmmakers watched and learned how to be universal, even with the most provincial material. Their greatest flattery for Kurosawa, however, was pure imitation, as in these home video suggestions:

Rashomon -- A woman's rape and her husband's murder are recalled in court by four accused men, each with his own version of how it happened. Kurosawa's triumph at the 1950 Venice Film Festival first opened the world's eyes to Japanese cinema. Remade with Laurence Harvey in 1964 as The Outrage.

The Hidden Fortress -- Two reluctantly heroic farmers battle an evil empire to return a feisty young princess to safety. Sound familiar? This 1958 adventure inspired George Lucas to create episode 4 of Star Wars.

The Seven Samurai -- A tiny village besieged by bandits hires seven warriors to protect it. Kurosawa's 1956 film was remade four years later as The Magnificent Seven, starring Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen.

Yojimbo -- Royal bodyguard (Toshiro Mifune) plays both sides against the middle in a small town divided by criminal gangs. Mifune's glare was replaced in remakes by Clint Eastwood's squint in A Fistful of Dollars and Bruce Willis' mumble in Last Man Standing.

Throne of Blood and Ran -- Kurosawa wasn't above borrowing from other masters. These films transported William Shakespeare's dramas -- Macbeth and King Lear, respectively -- to feudal Japanese settings.

Dersu Uzala -- Kurosawa didn't restrict his art to Japan. This 1974 Oscar nominee focused on a Russian explorer reunited in Siberia with a guide who saved his life.

Kagemusha -- The death of a warlord lifts a look-alike thief into the commander's role. Kurosawa admirers George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola assisted the aging filmmaker in completing the film.

Ikiru -- A bureaucrat learns he's dying of cancer and pours himself into his work in order to feel his life is worthwhile. The remake of this film opens Oct. 26: Life as a House starring Kevin Kline.


New and noteworthy for digital players

Holy Bat-disc, it's finally here!

Batman (1966): 25th anniversary special edition

Forget Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and (please!) George Clooney. The best Batman for your buck is still Adam West, someone who gained more personality when he put the mask on. I'll take West's stiff doomsday line readings over Keaton's eyebrows any day.

The sublime silliness of West and co-star Burt Ward as Robin chasing arch villains through a comics-colored underworld is on display in a DVD of their 1966 movie with enough bonuses to make a Bat-fan yell "ZOWIE!"

The feature film was planned as a marketing tool for syndicating the TV series overseas. Thirty-four episodes had been produced for U.S. audiences, so Batman the movie was meant to bring other nations up to Bat-speed. The result is a world domination/kill the Dynamic Duo scheme by a super-rogues' gallery: the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Joker (Cesar Romero) and Catwoman (Lee Meredith).

An audio commentary track with West and Ward isn't very informative, but it's fun eavesdropping on two buddies once again enjoying the best show biz ride they ever caught. Neither met a double entendre they didn't like, making those naughty tales Ward relayed in his autobiography seem credible. They still ogle Meriwether in her Catwoman costume and hint about past party times.

Many of the same details are covered in a well-edited 17-minute featurette. West still looks ready to battle crime, but Ward would need help fitting into those tights again. Much of the short subject deals with Bat-gimmicks such as the Batcopter, Batboat and Batcycle that almost killed Ward.

A shorter, better documentary features George Barris, designer and builder of the Batmobile. Barris identifies the original vehicle as a 1966 Lincoln Futura, a concept car never produced. Everything worked, even those kerosene flames bursting from the back. But no windshield wipers, causing Barris to be stopped by a policeman during a test drive.

The DVD also includes a pair of photo galleries, a teaser preview for the film and the original theatrical trailer. The same trailer is offered in Spanish for an extra campy touch. Fox Home Video also sneaks in a promotional trailer for the release of a complete Planet of the Apes series. As Commissioner Gordon would say: "Clever. Devilishly clever."

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