2001 Sundance Film Festival Update #4: "The Game's Afoot"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 24, 2001

A few random thoughts from the surprisingly sunny slopes of Park City...

Last year in Toronto, I noticed that palm pilots were as popular with festival-goers as cell phones. If you asked someone about a film they'd seen, they would pause, pull out their palm pilot, and consult whatever cryptic notes they had taken (and it's not just journalists who did this). Thus far at Sundance, there's been nary a palm pilot to be found. That's probably because it seems like 75% of those attending the festival are publicists and marketing people, and it's hard to imagine what they would need a palm pilot for. But cell phones (especially those with this year's latest toy, the earpiece) are everywhere. I even saw one guy simultaneously talking on two. I suppose that takes skill.

Compulsive cell phone users can be some of the most rude people around. It's as if constantly speaking into a phone has robbed them of the basic ability to communicate face-to-face. Take, for example, a woman who called a friend on the phone and proceeded to hold a conversation... when they were both inside the same theater (granted, it's a big theater, but still....) Before a screening a couple of days ago, I wandered into the Men's Room at the Egyptian theater, and there was a guy talking on his cell phone while using a urinal. Now, without going into detail, I can assure my female readers that such a juggling act requires real skill. It's also what I would consider to be a grotesque breach of etiquette. Think about it - would you really want to talk to someone while they're taking a pee?

The most bizarre incident involving a cell phone happened during the post-screening Q&A for Memento. After being singled out by the director to ask a question, a man stood up, started talking, then abruptly stopped to answer his ringing cell phone. While the nonplused director stared at him quizzically, he sat down and began carrying on a conversation with whoever was on the other end. Afterwards, I felt like going up to the individual and asking if he had been raised in a barn.

Thus far, for the most part, I have successfully fended off the deleterious effects of sleep deprivation. I have yet to doze off during a film, although two movies have been real challenges. The first was an insipid romantic comedy called Possible Loves. Hailing from Brazil, it's the latest in the "alternate futures" genre, and easily the least inspired of the lot. Possible Loves follows one man through three versions of his life, each of which has sprung from a different reaction to being stood up on a date. In one, he's stuck in a loveless marriage and ready to have an affair. In another, he was married the girl who stood him up, but divorced her after discovering that he's a closet homosexual. Now, he's trying to balance his feeligs for her and those he has for his new partner. And, in the third, he's a rootless individual who lives with his mother and is looking for his true soulmate. (Guess who she turns out to be?) None of these stories is interesting on its own, and interweaving them does nothing to spice up the mix. Possible Loves features some nice acting, but that's about it. Since the film is unlikely to be picked up for U.S. distribution, having the opportunity to pass this movie up won't be an issue for the majority of my readers.

The other loser - and potentially the worst film I'll see at the festival - is called Jack the Dog. It's about a chronic womanizer who learns to curb his ways when he meets and falls in love with the right woman. But, as their marriage gets long-in-the-tooth, he starts to stray because she loses interest in sex. Eventually, she moves to England, leaving him to care for his son, and he learns that there are more important things in life than women and sex. Give me a break... The movie is from veteran indie director Bobby Roth, and it's frankly shocking that he could turn out such an inept motion picture. The storyline is plodding and over-familiar, the casting is odd (a half-Asian child was chosen as the natural-born son of two very Caucasian individuals), the sound is murky (it's often difficult to make out the dialogue), and the quality of the video is poor (not a great advertisement for shooting on digital video). Jack the Dog was a thorough waste of 85 minutes. Like Possible Loves, it will probably leave Sundance the way it arrived - without a distributor.

To this point, I have seen a pair of detective movies, one of which belongs in the category of truly great films. The other, which I'll discuss first, occupies a less lofty peak. The Caveman's Valentine is the sophomore effort from director Kasi Lemmons, who was responsible for the surprising and subtle Eve's Bayou. Very little of what made her first effort such a success is evident here. In fact, the only noteworthy aspect of The Caveman's Valentine is Samuel L. Jackson's performance. It's not representative of his greatest work, but it is thoroughly watchable.

The film introduces us to a New York City homeless man, Romulus Ledbetter (Jackson), who has been living in a cave in a Manhattan park since he lost his grip on reality. Once a Julliard student, Romulus is now a crusader against the evils of big business - a paranoid schizophrenic who wanders the city preaching about how Big Brother is watching. His daughter, a New York cop, does her best to pretend that Romulus doesn't exist - until the day when he finds a frozen body outside of his cave and calls upon her to help. However, when the police rule the death accidental, Romulus suddenly turns into Sherlock Holmes and begins his own investigation of what he believes to have been a murder. (For a better depiction of someone afflicted with Romulus' disorder, see Angels of the Universe -- it's The Caveman's Valentine without the stupid detective subplot.)

A murder mystery with a paranoid schizophrenic might be an interesting topic for a movie, but not as it's presented here. In the first place, Romulus' sudden investigative instincts, and the personality transformation that results from them, isn't just poorly motivated - it's not motivated at all. It makes no sense whatsoever that this man would go out and look into this murder, and even less sense that most of the symptoms of his mental illness would conveniently fade into the background while he's on the case. Another problem in the credibility department is that the police give him carte blanche and that he's able to use his past connections from Julliard (along with his dubious charm) to worm his way into the upper echelons of New York society.

Some of those flaws might have been forgivable if the murder mystery was at least interesting, but it's not. Red herrings dot the landscape, but we're never engaged deeply enough by the character or the story to care. The best mysteries involve the viewer in the puzzle of their solution; when things come to a head in The Caveman's Valentine, the audience reaction is little more than a shrug. This "thriller" is more likely to lull viewers to sleep than to keep them on the edges of their seats. The real mystery surrounding The Caveman's Valentine is how such a promising director and accomplished actor could combine to produce such a lifeless and poorly-realized motion picture.

As disappointed as I was by The Caveman's Valentine, that's how pleased I was by Christopher Nolan's Memento, a competition film that is guaranteed a spot on my year's end Top 10 list. There's no way this film could miss. Had it been released last year, it would have landed in the #1 or #2 position (right ahead or behind Requiem for a Dream). This is a great motion picture. I typically don't hand out "star" ratings during film festivals, but there's no question that Memento deserves ****.

It's the hottest film at Sundance. The buzz was strong going in (the movie debuted at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, and that's where the raves started), and has grown with each public screening. I ran into Roger Ebert on Monday and asked him if he had seen it. He said "no", but, based on word of mouth, it had climbed to the top of his must-see list. Memento currently has a distributor, but it's a small one (I forget who). As a result, when it begins it's U.S. run (currently scheduled for March, but the date could change), it may be difficult to find, especially for those who don't live near major metropolitan areas.

Memento stars Austalian actor Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, a former insurance investigator and crime victim who is trying to find the man who raped and murdered his wife. His goal is simple - he wants revenge through execution. Nothing less will satisfy him. But there's a small matter that complicates Leonard's investigation. He has no short term memory. During the attack that ended his wife's life, Leonard suffered brain damage. Now, although his long-term memory is fine, he can't remember any recent events. He can meet the same person a hundred times and won't know their name or who they are. To combat his condition, Leonard relies upon a series of annotated Polaroid snapshots - not exactly the ideal tool by which to seek out a killer who even the police can't locate.

Memento doesn't stop with a great premise. In fact, what really distinguishes this film is its brilliant, innovative structure. Nolan has elected to tell the story backwards. He starts at the end and finishes near the beginning. The main narrative is presented as a series of two-to-three minute segments, each of which ends where the previous one began. A second thread, which starts at an unspecified time in the past and moves forward to intersect with the main storyline, is used to buffer the "reverse" segments as well as provide background information. Although this approach might at first seem confusing, it doesn't take long to get used to it, and to understand how well it works with this material.

By presenting events in Memento backwards, Nolan allows us to get into the mindset of the main character. Like Leonard, we don't have a clear indication of what happened before the current segment of time. We know some things from the past, but not the recent past. Like him, we are presented with numerous cryptic clues, some of which may mean something other than what they initially appear to represent. And, although it might seem that an approach which reveals the story's conclusion in the first five minutes would lack tension, that's far from the case. Memento builds to a surprising yet completely logical finale, and there's plenty of suspense along the way to keep the viewer riveted.

Those who enjoyed the dubious pleasure of piecing together the plot of The Sixth Sense in retrospect will be delighted by Memento, which only reveals the entire landscape when the end credits start rolling. Unlike The Sixth Sense, however, Memento does not rely upon an easily-predicted twist ending to give the storyline meaning. This movie is constructed as a series of clever and logical revelations. It builds to the final scene rather than attempting to ambush us.

Lead actor Guy Pearce gives an astounding performance as a man struggling to avoid being manipulated in a world where he can easily become anyone's pawn. It's a tight, thoroughly convincing performance. Able support is provided by Carrie-Anne Moss, who is quickly moving far beyond her label as the "Matrix Babe", and character actor Joe Pantoliano. But the real star here is Nolan, and the way he has edited this masterful thriller into its final format.

Every festival has a defining film. Sometimes it wins awards; sometimes it doesn't. For Sundance 2001, Memento is that movie. There's not a better motion picture out there; even though I haven't seen everything at the festival, I can make that statement with a high degree of certainty. For those who love films and don't mind being a little confused, Memento is not to be missed, even if you have to make a long trip to reach a theater showing it.

© 2001 James Berardinelli

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