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Video Reviews: Haunted past Victim muddles his way toward revenge in thrilling 'Memento'

Friday, September 07, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Ninety minutes into "Memento," director-writer Christopher Nolan gives the audience a momentary but monumental clue to the movie's mystery. By that point, we already know how it ends, since the psychological thriller starts at the shocking and bloody conclusion and then spins back to the beginning. But there are so many gaps to fill in, questions to answer, memories to test.

"Memento" ( ) Guy Pearce, a blond, lean Australian here playing a San Franciscan named Leonard Shelby. He's a former insurance investigator who suffered a head trauma that left him unable to form new memories. He cannot convert short-term memories into long-term ones.

Leonard is hunting for the man who raped and murdered his wife. To jog his memory about the motel where he's staying or the strangers he's met and their trustworthiness, he takes Polaroids and jots notes on the back.

To keep track of the clues to the killer's identity, he has them tattooed on his body. "John G. raped and murdered my wife" arcs across his chest. "Memory is treachery" is burned into his skin. So are "The Facts" which are numbered and dance down his arm. And always visible, on his left hand, is "Remember Sammy Jankis."

Sammy suffered a similar memory muddle after an accident, and Leonard investigated the case. Now, Leonard thinks he has learned from Sammy's mistakes and vows not to repeat them.

As Leonard pursues the killer, he encounters a string of strangers. Heck, everyone's a stranger to him since he cannot remember the motel clerk or barmaid or helpful pal (Joe Pantoliano) he just met or met for the fifth time.

Along the way, he muses on his Gordian knot of a life: He cannot recall how long it's been since his wife died. How can he heal if he can't feel the passage of time? And what's the sense in getting revenge, if he can't remember it?

And most importantly, he speculates about the reliability of memory. Leonard insists: "Memory can change the shape of a room. It can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation, they're not a record, and they're irrelevant if you have the facts."

The DVD features an interview with Nolan, conducted by New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell. "Memento" was shot in 25 1/2 days and even though actor Pearce began to question his own memory, he has an excellent ability to recall something and then repeat it exactly -- a blessing during a movie shoot, Nolan said.

"Memento" is the kind of movie you may want to see more than once. "I love films that you can come back to a second time or even a third time and get a slightly different experience." Ridley Scott makes movies that are "cinematically dense," Nolan said, and he wanted to craft a movie that was rich in a narrative way.

Nolan said it was very important that Leonard did not suffer from amnesia, as many movie protagonists from the '50s did. That often meant there were no rules, and anything could be possible. This is a more controlled conundrum -- the person Leonard is now and the person he once was. And how, or if, those halves can be reconciled.

While Christopher Nolan wrote the screenplay, the story sprang from the imagination of his brother, Jonathan Nolan. He fleshed out a separate version of the tale, which appears on the DVD as "Memento Mori." If you click on that, you will find a series of 50 pages with the short story. Its protagonist is called Earl and it has flashes of wit, as with this passage: "Not too many professions out there that value forgetfulness. Prostitution, maybe, Politics, of course."

In a flashback in the movie, Leonard asks his wife how she can re-read a book yet again. "I always thought the joy of reading a book is not knowing what happens next." In the case of a book -- or a movie -- that's not always the case.

"Memento" is rated R for violence, language and some drug content.

How did they do that?

Those Forrest Gumpisms seem so, well, 1994, but a double-disc set of the Tom Hanks film provides some fascinating insight into the making of the Oscar winner.

A collector's edition of "Forrest Gump," which carries a suggested retail price of $29.99, has a disc of extras including screen tests with 5-year-old Haley Joel Osment (Hanks asks him what his favorite cartoon is) and a look at how the special effects were done. Also included are two scenes, one where Forrest tames snarling dogs on the Rev. Martin Luther King set and the other in which he plays pingpong with the elder George Bush, eventually cut from the finished print.

At the time of its release, most moviegoers were fascinated by the disappearance of Gary Sinise's legs. Stories dutifully reported that he wore blue stockings, which helped the filmmakers "erase" them but the effects were more complicated than that.

Lt. Dan's hospital bed actually had an opening that concealed his legs; that gap in the sheets was then removed by computer, as were the shadows created by his limbs. Equal care was given to a scene in which he tumbles out of a wheelchair and swings his shortened legs near a table (that scene was shot twice, with and without the table). We also see how Sinise and a stunt double swung onto the edge of a boat and then dropped into the water.

Ken Ralston, visual effects supervisor, and George Murphy, computer graphics supervisor, share their secrets. How the birds rising from a cornfield had to be computer animated, since real doves were released but didn't follow their cues. How tricky it was to paste LBJ's head onto someone else's body, how challenging it was to change the words spoken by John Lennon on a Dick Cavett show, and how Hanks managed to carry Bubba (Mykelti Williamson) out of the Vietnamese jungle, strafed with napalm. That was done with wires and a crane.

Their insights on these scenes and others is a mini-lesson in special effects for film students and avid moviegoers. Other extras include commentary by director Robert Zemeckis, a behind-the-scenes documentary and insight into the makeup, sound effects and product design of the film about the Southerner who glides through life with a childlike naivete and faith in humanity.

Romero release

If you never miss a George Romero movie, you'll have to catch the next one on video. Trimark Home Video is releasing "Bruiser," the picture he shot in Toronto two years ago, on Oct. 9.

"Bruiser," written and directed by Romero, is the story of a man who keeps his mouth shut, follows the rules, does what he's supposed to -- and wakes up one morning to find his face is gone. All of the years of acquiescence have cost him his identity. Once it's gone, though, he decides to murder the folks who have wronged him. On that roster: His cheating wife, the best friend who is mishandling his financial portfolio, and the boss who treats him like dirt.

The movie stars Jason Flemyng as the man without a face, Peter Stormare as his boss, Nina Garbiras as his wife and Pittsburgher Tom Atkins as a veteran cop on the killer's trail.

Coming our way

"Pearl Harbor," starring Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, will be released Dec. 4, three days before the 60th anniversary of the actual attack.

You can reach Barbara Vancheri at bvancheri@post-gazette.com

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