Our review of Memento, published September 17th, 2001, is also available.
Some memories are best forgotten.
The year 2001 brought forth a rather forgettable amount of garbage from the unoriginal Hollywood movie machine. We were treated to trite retellings of old clichés (Tomb Raider) all the way to overly rendered films with no script (Jurassic Park III). No, the summer of 2001 could not in any way be considered one of the better from film history, which made it easier for audiences to find the few good movies that made it into theaters, one of which was Christopher Nolan's Memento, starring Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential), Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix, Red Planet), and Joe Pantoliano (The Matrix, Bound). After giving Memento a pretty decent "standard" DVD release last September, Columbia TriStar promised an eventual better edition, which they are now making good on with the DVD release of a Special Edition of Memento.
Facts of the Case
Memento opens with a tortured soul named Leonard Shelby (Pearce) putting a bullet through the head of a dumbfounded Teddy (Pantoliano) because words written on a Polaroid™ photograph informs Leonard that, "He is the one. Kill him." We soon learn that Leonard suffers from a bizarre condition that does not allow him to create new memories, which means that conversations he has and events he takes part in will be forgotten a few minutes after they've passed. Leonard compensates for this by using photographs, an endless folder of notes, and tattooing himself with important information to keep him up on current events, the most staggering of which is that he's trying to avenge the murder of his wife, which is coincidentally the last memory he's held onto since his "accident." The plot of the movie unfolds moving backwards through time, and we witness the events that eventually end with Teddy's execution. We watch as Teddy continually tries to help Leonard along with his condition, but Leonard's notes warn him with a staunch "Don't trust his lies." We also meet Natalie (Moss) who has also decided to help Leonard because, as his notes say, "She has also lost someone and will help you out of pity." As the story continues to unfold, however, who can really be trusted, and is anybody, including Leonard, really what they seem to be?
Memento has one of those stories that everybody has seen before. Stop me if you've heard this one. A guy's wife/girlfriend/fiancée gets murdered and the guy then goes on a kickboxing/shooting rampage looking for revenge. The joy of Memento, however, is the unique approach that Christopher Nolan takes with the story. By having the plot unfold backwards in time this creates a story in and of itself, a regular whodunnit where the rug is yanked out from under the audience at least twice. Got if figured out? Forget about it, because you don't. By going backwards, we essentially know what Leonard knows, and since he can't remember anything that really isn't much. Instead, we get a look at Leonard's fragmented memory, which consists of a collection of photographs and tattoos that serve as his guide. A prominent tattoo continuously reminds him that "John G. raped and murdered [his] wife" so that he won't lose sight of his purpose. Once the audience finds itself getting comfortable with Leonard's world, which is a disorienting experience at the beginning of Memento, the story falls into place rapidly and with great ease. At first, there are questions that might seem clever, such as "If he has no memory, how does he remember he has a condition?" Without revealing too much, all of these questions eventually get answered, but you need to pay close attention to get them. That, or you need to watch Memento more than once. Very few psychological thrillers have been able to deliver original and shocking moments, but Memento does so splendidly. Since I'd rather not reveal too much of the story, you'll just have to take my word on this one.
The acting in Memento is nothing short of brilliant. Guy Pearce, who played the part of a clean-cut cop in L.A. Confidential, gives an amazing performance as a man who's never too sure of where he is or what he's doing. Leonard is a character with a strict moral code, yet feels betrayed by his memory and continually worries about the idea that he's done something wrong. Leonard has also been hurt emotionally by the events that caused his memory problem, and he's continually haunted by the vision of his wife dying next to his side on a cold bathroom floor. These are two traits that would not make for a well-balanced character, but Leonard seems real to the audience and it becomes very easy to empathize with him thanks to Pearce's performance. If Memento is a modern film noir, and I certainly contend that it is, then Carrie-Anne Moss' Natalie will be a femme fatale against which all other femme fatales will be judged. Moss is a talented actress whose multi-layered character needs to play off Leonard's various moods. If you've seen Moss in other films, you will have an entirely new opinion of her skills after watching Memento. That brings me to Joe Pantoliano, who has made a career of playing schemers, dirtbags, and low-level hoods, which suits the part of Teddy to a tee. We're told, through Leonard's notes, that we're not supposed to trust Teddy, and Pantoliano plays up his shiftiness to reinforce that. The plot to Memento is terrific, but it's the three principle actors that elevate the film to its greatness.
Christopher Nolan proves himself to be a very clever director with Memento. I cannot imagine the logistics of creating a film where the story flows uphill, so to speak, but Nolan manages it flawlessly. After listening to his audio commentary (more on this in a moment), I was amazed at the amount of conscious decision that went into the various setups to convey the ideas behind Memento. Nolan's script also brings a lot of things to think about to the table. If Leonard is ever able to complete his quest for vengeance, how would he know that he succeeded? Since he only remembers that his wife is dead, why hunt somebody down if he'd never be able to remember the satisfaction of hunting him down? The script also speaks a lot about the nature of memory, and how our own memories serve as our identities. What becomes of us if that memory is faulty? If we tell ourselves something often enough, does that make it true? I've watched Memento several times now and each time I've been amazed at the new things I've noticed.
Memento: Special Edition has a nearly flawless anamorphic transfer that involves almost no edge enhancement. The image clarity is excellent, and Memento's limited color palette is properly reproduced for this DVD. The 5.1 channel audio output is excellent and is properly utilized throughout the presentation, and unfortunately I do not have a system capable of DTS sound so I can not comment on that at this time. The special features are numerous, but finding them on these DVDs becomes something of a daunting task considering the menu layouts. Somebody thought it would be cool to create menus that recreate the experience of some sort of psychological exam to get to the features that you need, including actually playing the movie, though at least that one they give you a hint on. I guess maybe somebody thought it would be fun for people to hunt through gobs of symbols, word association games, and answer various questions just so you can see the trailers. While the menus might actually be cool, the fun factor ends and turns into a nuisance after a couple of times through the menu system. I often enjoy and appreciate creative menu displays on a DVD, but the first and foremost function of these menus is to direct you to what you want to see quickly. The menus for Memento: Special Edition defy this standard of utility, and Columbia TriStar even goes as far as to tell you that there are "hidden" special features. I have no idea if the features included on the original DVD are on the Special Edition anywhere, but if they are, I have yet to find them. Frankly, I don't have the time to hunt for Easter eggs, and words simply cannot express how annoyed I was by this.
There are a few features I have been able to uncover. The most important is the audio commentary with Christopher Nolan. As I alluded to above, there's a great amount of information to be learned about the technical side of Memento, as well as some of the nuances of the script. Nolan addresses some of these, but I need to point out that he isn't the most exciting sounding person I've ever heard on a commentary track. I had a hard time staying awake while listening, and I really couldn't say that the presence of this commentary track makes the Special Edition worth an upgrade if you already have the previous DVD release. The commentary was the sole reason I was looking forward to the Special Edition, and I came away from it disappointed.
Making a repeat appearance from the original DVD release is the full short story "Memento Mori" by Jonathan Nolan, which is an intriguing backdrop from which Memento sprung. Christopher Nolan's shooting script is also included, along with various annotations to said script. The Sundance Channel's "Anatomy of a Scene" serves as a "making-of" featurette that rises above the standard advertising fluff and is worth watching. The special features are rounded out with the standard inclusion of theatrical trailers, production stills, and production notes. If anybody reading this is able to find the Tattoo Gallery and the Christopher Nolan interview from the first DVD, I'd love to hear about it (that is, if they're even on this DVD).
Memento is a vastly original thriller that lives up to the hype, bringing us an engaging, entertaining and thought-provoking story and is highly recommended. The Special Edition DVD is certainly an impressive package that is highly recommended if you don't have the original DVD. If you are considering a double-dip, you may want to hold onto your money, as the audio commentary wasn't necessarily worth the price of admission.
Memento as a film is free to go and certainly won't be forgotten. Columbia TriStar is off the hook since they were decent enough to tell fans about the impending Special Edition. The person who made the menus for this DVD set needs to have a jar of spiders placed over his head. I will not argue about this.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Christopher Nolan
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